A decade ago, Rio de Janeiro-based artist and photographer Christian Spencer made an amazing discovery. At certain sun-lit angles, hummingbird wings transform into tiny fluttering rainbows. They become prisms in the sky—a fact that Spencer only learned after seeing the creatures appear in his film The Dance of Time slowed down to 5% of its normal speed.
The discovery launched Spencer into a series aptly called Winged Prisms. It took many years to fully complete, as each image required an ideal set of conditions and the photographer being in the right place at the right time. But the effort put into the series has been worth it.
The images are memorialized in a new book titled BIRDS: Poetry in the Sky. It features shots of stunning rainbow-tinted hummingbirds as well as other birds presented in their natural habitat. The images are united with a beautiful lyricism that exemplifies Spencer’s stylistic explanation: “The camera is my brush.”
Get your copy of BIRDS: Poetry in the Sky through Bookshop.org. In the meantime, we had the chance to speak with Spencer about his book, including the unique ways in which he’s planning to exhibit his work in the future. Scroll down to read My Modern Met’s exclusive interview.
Rio de Janeiro-based artist and photographer Christian Spencer shares about his new book, BIRDS: Poetry in the Sky.
Can you describe the moment that you first noticed the “hummingbird rainbows?”
I first discovered the natural rainbow effect in the hummingbird wings when I was making the film The Dance of Time in 2011. The opening sequence of the film is a hummingbird sequence of rainbows appearing in the wings. The film went on to win 10 awards in international film festivals. After I filmed the hummingbirds against the Sun, it wasn't until the video was slowed down to 5% that the secret was revealed.
Your series Winged Prisms took years to complete. What kind of challenges did you face when making it happen?
Most of the photos of the Winged Prisms series were taken in 2014 and another important group of the series in 2018. The photos are impossible, even for me, to copy relying on specific atmospheric conditions and the perfect poetic harmonic form of the hummingbird in focus. Each photo is a treasure that captures a moment in time that is gone forever. That's why each photo has a very important and distinctive title.
What do you like about photographing hummingbirds?
Sometimes I get the impression that hummingbirds live in a different time and dimension. Their speed and elegance with which they fly never cease to amaze me. They are very methodic and maintain a tight schedule of flower visitation usually once an hour. Each hummingbird usually visits specific flowers, so once you know the connection between a specific flower and a specific hummingbird it makes them easier to photograph. They never fail to amaze and inspire me.
Your book features other types of bird portraits, in addition to the hummingbird rainbows. What are the stories behind these additional portraits?
The book contains a chapter on the beauty of hummingbird feathers and in particular the way the feathers appear to change color once they have been soaked in a summer rain. The beautiful black-eared fairy hummingbird which is a fabulous emerald green turns a crimson red after its feathers become wet. I also captured the very first raindrops sitting on their feathers like miniature crystal balls and the dazzling beauty of their decorative feathers in specific light conditions.
What can the reader expect from BIRDS: Poetry in the Sky?
The sheer power of beauty sometimes cannot be expressed in words but only through art. The book has a more artistic approach than most bird photography books and has a beautiful harmonic feeling that flows through the book until the end which will leave a smile on most people's faces and with a sense of awe and wonder.
What is on the horizon for you? Anything exciting you can tell us about?
Since a very young age, I have been a professional painter; and even though I have made successful artistic films, and now an entire book with my photographs, the artistic expression that I most enjoy is my painting. So I am looking forward to getting back into my painting with more intensity.
Also, I am looking forward to exhibiting the photographs throughout the world in relation to promoting the book which will be exhibited for three months on the biggest digital façade in Europe, which is situated in Paris. I have plans to exhibit the hummingbird photos on the Moon, which would have the photos being projected on the Moon from Earth. At specific times of the day, a hummingbird would appear on the surface of the full moon.