A passion for Parrots

Detail from Christine Fitzgerald's Ara Ararauna. Hand-printed photographic print. Tricolour Gum Bichromate over Palladium on Cotton Rag 23 x 27.25in. / 58.42 x 69.22 cm. Courtesy the artist.

Parrots are fascinating, beautiful and mysteriously intelligent wild creatures that we humans romanticize and bring into our homes.

But because they can be restive, cranky and long-lived they are often cast away by their erstwhile owners.

That concerns the photo-based artist Christine Fitzgerald, for whom parrots have become a bit of a passion. So much so that she has photographed them and through a multi-layered process has produced an exhibition of works at the Studio Sixty Six gallery on Bank Street that beautifully features these feathered friends very much front and centre.

It started after she finished a project on threatened and endangered animals called Threatened that was done in collaboration with the Museum of Nature. Fitzgerald does have a strong interest in the natural world. She was one of the artists invited to join the C3 Canada 150 voyage through the Northwest Passage from Atlantic to Pacific a few years ago.

Christine Fitzgerald. Cacuatua Moluccensis
Hand-printed photographic print. Tricolour Gum Bichromate over Palladium on Cotton Rag 23 x 27.25in. / 58.42 x 69.22 cm. Courtesy the artist.

“I heard a news item on the organization Parrot Partners. They had lost their space and I paid attention to the story. I heard that a patron had stepped forward … and I parked it in my head.”

Three years later she took a closer look and the more she looked the intrigued she got.

“I just became really curious about parrots. They were brilliantly beautiful and I knew a number were endangered and threatened. I was kind of curious about this whole world of parrots.”

Eventually she decided the birds would make great subjects for her practice. So she ordered a bunch of books and started reading.

In the exhibition called Captive, the photographs are all of abandoned birds looked after by Parrot Partners in their Carleton Place centre.

She started working on the project just after Christmas 2018.

Her photographic practice is very complicated involving some very old photographic techniques, combined with digital images so she needs to be very sure about a project before undertaking it.

“This is why I do a lot of research,” she told ARTSFILE in a recent interview. “Before I start anything I have to know as much as I can about a subject, because once I start I am in it and it’s expensive.” For example, she used palladium and platinum solutions in her printing process and 100 ml bottle can cost about $300 or more.

In this case the birds could not travel to her so she went to them. You might think they are calm animals, but even well-care-for parrots can be cranky, stubborn and occasionally aggressive. Many of these birds were not treated well.

Christine Fitzgerald. Electus Roratus Unique hand-printed photographic print. Tricolour Gum Bichromate over Palladium Print on Cotton Rag 23 x 27.25 in./58.42 x 69.22 cm. Courtesy the artist.

“I had to shoot the live birds on site and I needed a bird handler to help me. The lighting was poor so I had to pack my own lighting. And I had to build a perch for the animals.”

She also had to get to know each bird before she could get a good photograph.

“I thought I would just go in and take a photograph, but the birds might not want to come out of their cage. They are wild animals. They could attack.”

She eventually did get very close to them but it took time.

Many of the birds have been given up by their owners and some, because parrots can live a long time, outlast their owners. It is a tragic, worldwide phenomenon, Fitzgerald said.

Each bird was interesting. One, named Ally, could sing opera. The bird had been taken by traffickers as a chick and was found on the side of the road in a box by an opera singer. The box had fallen off a truck. The singer took the bird home and raised it and took it around the world.

“I walked in one day and I could hear opera and it was the bird. I thought it was a record.”

The most difficult bird was an illegally bred hybrid. It took three months to get a good image. She was afraid the bird would attack her at any moment.

The most poignant maybe her pictures of cockatoos. These birds are very social and once taken from a flock they can become very distressed. They often pick away at the feathers on their bodies. Fitzgerald has shown that in some of her images.

She has also included one photograph of a young woman with a parrot on her shoulder.

Christine Fitzgerald. Hyacinth Macaw
Hand-printed photographic print. Tricolour Gum Bichromate over Palladium on Cotton Rag 23 x 27.25in. / 58.42 x 69.22 cm. Courtesy the artist.

She did this because, in art history, “parrots have been a symbol of femininity and the exotic.”

People have asked Fitzgerald: ‘Why parrots?’

“People don’t know about the sad underlying narrative” that has attracted her. The symbolism of the bird is another reason.

Her images are beautifully old fashioned in appearance.

“I did that on purpose. When I looked into history of parrots in the arts they tended to play a secondary role. They were a symbol for something. They represented something exotic. I wanted to make them the focus of the image.”

Her work includes a very old process that was in use in the middle of the 19th century. When Fitzgerald makes a print she works through several layers, each “like a metaphor for travelling through time.”

Making a print can take Fitzgerald several days, she said, and reminds one of the process that a lithographer or a printmaker etching a metal plate goes through.

The hardest part, however, in this project might have been capturing a good image of a parrot on her high resolution camera.

Then come the layers of plates and liquids and exposures that all combine in the end to produce, in the case of these parrot prints very limited editions of five prints each.

“It’s an insane process. I have gravitated to photographic printmaking in part because I value photograph as an art object. I decided to go back to the object.” Given all that, it’s likely very helpful that she studied sciences at university.

What’s more remarkable, perhaps, is that Fitzgerald didn’t own a camera until 2012 when her husband bought her one. “He regrets that now,” she said. “He asks me how many lenses I have and I never give the answer.”

Christine Fitzgerald.

She said she has always loved the arts but her career was in health research as an administrator. Her work involved a lot of travel and whenever she could she would visit galleries. In her family, her oldest brother was a cinematographer at the National Film Board and he was a black and white photographer and had darkroom in the family home.

She taught herself as much about photography as she could and then enrolled in the School of Photographic Arts Ottawa (SPAO) and started to get more and more involved.

She has completed an artist residency at the Ottawa School of Art and was an invited artist in residence in print media at York University’s School of Arts, Media, Performance and Design.

She’s also won several awards including the 2016 Fine Art Photographer of the Year in the International Photography Awards in New York City and the 2017 International Julia Margaret Cameron Award for women photographers.

In town: Christine Fitzgerald’s photographs of parrots, Captive, is on at Studio Sixty Six Contemporary Art Gallery until Nov. 24. On Nov. 13 at 6 p.m. she will give an artist at the gallery, 858 Bank St. Unit 101. Information: christinefitzgeraldphotography.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.