The first time I looked through a camera lens and saw Roseate Spoonbills dance I was struck with the same sense of awe that first drew me to study painting in New York in the 60’s. At that time, seeing the massive canvasses of Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and Franz Kline, I realized that art is not about documenting existence; but something far more ambitious; the subject of modern painting is expression itself, just as the dance of a Spoonbill surpasses the need to mate and become pure expression, pure beauty.
I became attracted to the sublime in art, for the ability of art to surpass life, not by exaggerating it but by rendering it, by seeing it fully. The capacity for seeing life is at the root of painting, and we can express even, in a sense, our limitations — point out the place where we cannot go. This is the essence of the sublime. I can attempt to capture some image of the bird, but the bird will always remain at a distance, utterly alien, and this is why it’s so beautiful to us. The distance from ourselves and the object of our desire and aspiration is also at the heart of art-making and of the human condition itself; all of our desire and ambition is focused on the unattainable object.
The wild bird is the apotheosis of the unattainable. In the past it was only by destroying that we could really see a bird. Now we have telephoto lenses and bird watching is the foremost hobby in America. Yet the distance remains, both in the otherness of the birds and the bald fact of their likely annihilation. – Judith Vivell