“There are certain criteria that people want to see in a pigeon photo,” Luke Stephenson tells us. And he would know. When he discovered the obscure, wonderful world of pigeon racing in college, Stephenson, a London-based photographer, became especially fascinated by the winning birds’ classy portraits taken at the end of each race, all by professional pigeon photographers.
Spurred on by the specific constraints that made a winning pigeon portrait, Stephenson devised a plan for a photo series based on show parakeets (known in England as budgies), which grew into a three-year odyssey and a new book, An Incomplete History of Show Birds. “Little did I know then how big and long the project would become,” he says.
Stephenson himself is not a budgie-owner, so he turned to a local bird club with an extensive online breeders’ directory to find his models, many of which compete in bird shows across the country. He drove around to shoot each in its natural habitat–its owner’s home–and developed a portable atelier to keep the visuals consistent. “I had to make a kind of studio box which could fit in the back of my car; there was a lot of trial and error perfecting it,” he says. For the most part, the subjects were cooperative, although some more so than others. “I was always quite scared of parrots as they can bite your finger off with their sharp beaks.”
Apart for cleaning up a few marks on the backgrounds, Stephenson did no retouching, instead letting the incredible color, detail, and distinct personality of every individual specimen shine through naturally. And while the book will be released later this year, there’s always a chance to add more images to the collection. “I still might revisit the project again in a few years as I still have some breeds I’d like to tick of my list,” he says. “It is the ‘incomplete history,’ after all.”