I remember the first time I saw Leila Jeffreys work. I was strolling through Jonathan Adler’s store in West Hollywood and hanging large and luminously on the wall was a photograph of a budgerigar. Dignified and poised, his plume of green feathers an explosion of color and a true celebration of nature at it’s most magnificent. I had never seen a bird photographed in such a regal, almost humanlike pose; as if he had arrived at his portrait session determined to be captured in all his glory.
Jeffrey’s work isn’t just beautiful, it serves as a reminder that “birds are not that different to us, that they try to find a partner, raise young, build homes, search for food.”
A fellow Australian who has found global success (avid collector Brooke Shields recently hosted her current New York exhibition opening, Hugh Jackman, Debora-lee Furness and Liz Hurley are also fans).
So for our first High Heel Jungle Artist Spotlight, it’s a privilege to introduce you to Leila Jeffreys.
Your large-scale photographs are always of birds, where did your love of birds originate?
Like so many passions, my love originated from childhood. I wasn’t specifically focused on birdlife, just a love of animals in general. Later I became a backyard birdwatcher, then I started volunteering for conservation work with ornithologists, then a birdwatching trip to Christmas Island really made me fall in love to such a deeper level and it wasn’t soon after that experience that I started to photograph birds in large-scale.
When you first showed your work, what was the general reaction?
I was with a small gallery in Sydney on Oxford Street, Paddington and my first solo exhibition was on budgerigars (referred to as parakeets in the US). The gallery printed one of my portraits on A5 cards which were left out the front of the gallery for passers by to pick up. Every day the gallery owner would open up for the day and every day all the cards were gone. He commented how that had never happened before, the interest just spread like wildfire and I had my first sold out exhibition. It was really quite extraordinary, especially for me as I had no idea that people would respond so strongly to the work.
They say that you should try to avoid working with children and animals, I can imagine shooting “flighty” birds would be uniquely challenging- what does a ”typical” studio portrait session look like?
There isn’t really one typical studio portrait session because the way I work depends so much on the species of bird and their individual needs. Some birds are flighty but others are calm. I’ve had several fall asleep on me or the perch while I’m working. Perhaps the best way to think of it is like a human portrait session but bird size! I use a back roll of paper, I have have a main light, a fill and a ‘hair light’, the perch replaces the chair and catering is more like seeds, nuts and water rather than M&Ms and coffee. I always travel to the bird, so I travel with a lot of equipment.
Perhaps the best way to think of it is like a human portrait session but bird size…The perch replaces the chair and catering is more like seeds, nuts and water rather than M&Ms and coffee.
Any tricks of the trade to win over your subject matter?
Time and patience is a big one. Allowing the birds to get used to you, so a repeat visit is a trick of the trade. This is obviously time consuming and expensive but I would rather take my time. Then there are simple tricks like being affectionate with them – some birds really respond to that – others love a food treat and then some birds have no interest in me whatsoever, so I just have to let them call the shots.
Have you had any near disasters/ funny moments working with your unique subjects?
I wouldn’t say any disasters, some have fallen asleep on me but that ends up being quite lovely and has allowed me to capture some unique portraits. I did have an eagle fly off and flick his raw meat dinner over me and my camera!
You’re also an animal conservationist- tell us a little about that?
Well I suppose at the heart of what I do is a love for wildlife and the natural environment, this is what drives me and has been borne out of my parents who were adventurous and made us experience a lot of places outside of the cities. I try to use art to help people connect with wildlife because so many people live such urban lives now, I can see that they’ve lost that connection and my hope is that if a bird grabs you by the heartstrings you will care about its future too.
I also do volunteer work which helps inspire my art practice. My last adventure I was flown in on a 4 seater plane to a remote island in New Zealand working alongside 20 scientists, rangers and volunteers to help with the breeding season of the critically endangered Kākāpō. Such an incredibly eccentric and special bird.
Your first solo exhibition was on the humble Aussie Budgie, then Cockatoos, then Australian birds of prey, now pigeons – tell us about what has helped guide your themes?
A lot of thought goes into these themes, for me a random selection of birds from exhibition to exhibition provides no point of difference. I like to break my shows into sections or focus on one species group. Working by themes or species group allows the viewer to learn new things while appreciating art. For example the cockatoo exhibition was a way for people to walk into a room and see every species of cockatoo found in Australia, all grouped together. Or the pigeon portraits in my current show reveals that a pigeon can be breathtakingly beautiful which is not normally how people think of pigeons.
You’re currently on exhibition in New York, tell us about that?
My current exhibition is called ‘Ornithurae’ and is showing at the Olsen Gruin Gallery in New York City. It runs until the 12th of November.
The latest body of work is broken into three parts. I’ve profiled two species groups – pigeons (15 portraits) and cockatoos (5 portraits) and I have a more conceptual art piece entitled ’Snowfall’ (1 artwork).
For the pigeons I had seen some beautiful rainforest pigeons while birdwatching. The Emerald dove that I saw on Christmas Island made me adamant that it was a series worth pursuing. I should explain that the word pigeon and dove is interchangeable. e.g. the forebear of the city pigeon that we all know is a rock dove.
For the cockatoos I had the opportunity to work with cockatoos found outside of Australia and re-visit some I’ve worked with previously inside Australia – I love working with cockatoos because they ooze personality and humour and when hung make for a beautiful part of the show.
For the ‘snowfall’ piece I observed how a flock of birds look like leaves, foliage or snow on a tree and that sent me on the path to create that work. I went back to working with budgerigars, hundreds of them!
I’m always driven to create work that is beautiful, sometimes humorous but also surprising and I hope I have achieved that with this latest exhibition.
Has there been a single work that has been the most overwhelming well received/ requested/ sold out etc?
Neville the Major Mitchell’s Cockatoo would have to be a big contender. I still get enquiries about him today but unfortunately being limited edition, he is sold out. To me he encapsulates cockatoo mischief.
You photographed Penguin the magpie at the heart of the international bestselling book “Penguin Bloom” who is the subject of a feature film set to star Naomi Watts- what was that like?
Oh Penguin was a dream to work with! She is such a character and really just acted like another person on set. She fell asleep at one stage. Cameron Bloom who is the photographer behind all the incredible photos of Penguin with his family happens to be one of my oldest Sydney friends. I photographed Penguin a few times when she first arrived in their lives and my favourite image of her makes me laugh, she is lying on her back, sometimes people wonder if she is dead but she loved lying on her back and would wrap her feet around your fingers, just very playful. I took my fingers away and that’s the portrait that I ended up capturing. I like to say that I knew Penguin before she was famous.
What bird is considered the “most intelligent” or “most affectionate”?There’s a few strong contenders when it comes to intelligence: ravens, crows, parrots like the Kea and Kaka from New Zealand or the African Grey but I wouldn’t want to play a game of chess against a Turkey Vulture either…they are so smart! When it comes to affection I’ve been bowled over by how affectionate and gentle black cockatoos are. They are big teddy bears.
What do you wish people know about birds?
That they are not that different to us, that they try to find a partner, raise young, build homes, search for food. That each species has something fascinating about them and that all of this can be seen if you take the time to observe them.
What’s next for you- do you think you’ll ever branch out or have you found your calling (pardon the puns)?
I’d like to work with other wildlife one day but there’s still so many different species of birds that I dream to work with and reveal to the art world.