Photographer Luke Stephenson’s key points of interest lie in the British lifestyle and psyche, elements he describes as being at the core of his work. But one of his most acclaimed projects, The Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds, seems, at first glance, to be a far cry from such nation-centric influences. The series consists of bright and beautifully coloured portraits which detail individual exotic birds down to the smallest feather; wrens and wood pigeons (the UK's most common birds) these are not.
Yet it transpires that each of these perfectly posing creatures was in fact scouted in England, and played a vital role in what Stephenson uncovered to be a surprisingly popular British pastime, bird keeping. “It all started when I decided I wanted to take pictures of budgies,” Stephenson explains. “I was influenced by the photography of prized pigeons, which is very formulaic, and I wanted to apply that to budgies so I contacted a breeder and went to his house somewhere in south London. I was very naïve and it didn’t go exactly to plan but as a result I stumbled on this hobby of keeping and breeding birds which intrigued me so much I spent the next 3 years taking pictures of birds.”
One of these birds, Australian Finch #2, recently featured in AnOther's short film for COS, in celebration of Frame at Frieze. Here, AnOther talks to Stephenson, whose recent side projects include the S/S13 Look Book for designer duo Agi & Sam, and unearth his favourite bird facts and dreams of photographing the Queen...
Where did you find the birds to photograph?
I was living in the north of England at the time and luckily they had a good bird club in my area and a great website with a breeders directory so I just contacted people and explained my idea; some people were happy to help, some flatly refused.
What in particular intrigues you about exotic birds?
I think they are really beautiful and fantastically colourful. I love the photos as you can see them really close up, which is something I’d never seen before.
Do you have a favourite bird fact?
Gypsies love green finches and if you breed one with a canary they make the best songbirds. Zebra finches have the nickname “angels with trumpets” as that what they sound like when they chirp.
"Gypsies love green finches and if you breed one with a canary they make the best songbirds"
If you were a bird, what species would you be?
I’d be a bird of prey that soars. Like an eagle or something like that.
What makes a good photograph?
That’s a hard question and I don’t think I know the answer but it needs to start with a solid idea.
What inspires your practice?
The little things in life.
What is your dream project?
To take a portrait of the Queen.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Life’s not a race.
Luke Stephenson's book, An Incomplete Dictionary of Show Birds, is available from December 12. Pre-order a copy here.
Text by Daisy Woodward