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“A fragment of eternity”: the bewitching murmurs of European starlings | Photography

Søren Solkær was 10 years old when he witnessed his first starling murmur, on the west coast of Denmark: more than 100,000 birds, making films in the sky as they were surrounded by a falcon. It would be nearly 40 years before the photographer, best known for his intimate and often playful portraits of artists and musicians, revisited this scene from his youth, setting aside a week to capture the birds in motion.

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That was five years ago, and Solkær hasn’t stopped, making whispers the subject of an exhibition and a book, Black Sun. “I’ve done it pretty much every winter since, and I don’t plan on stopping anytime soon,” he says. Before that, and despite the awakening of his childhood, Solkær had never turned his lens to birds. “I still don’t photograph individual birds, because I don’t find it visually interesting to just depict a bird, it doesn’t interest me artistically.”

In fact, there are eight individual starling portraits in Black Sun. Solkær says it was to give color and context to the larger image, “because they really look like little ink dots in my large photographs. I wanted to show that they really are beautiful birds metallic.

Catalonia, Spain.

Solkær became obsessed with starlings – not just the shapes they formed with their highly coordinated movements, but their ecology, as he followed their migration across Europe, from Denmark to Rome to Catalonia. . He started with the UNESCO-listed Wadden Sea, the largest unbroken system of intertidal mudflats in the world, stretching along parts of the Danish, German and Dutch coasts.

Here, every spring and fall, the sky is darkened with whispers, locally called “sort sol” – or “black sun”, hence the title of the book. Why starlings murmur is not fully understood. One theory is that massive numbers help birds warm up before going to roost; another is that it maximizes each individual’s chances of survival when attacked by aerial predators.

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How the birds move together in such close proximity, as if they were a single organism, is another mystery. One study found that each starling responded instantly to the closest six or seven birds to keep the group together. The time Solkær invested in the project paid off.

“I think a lot of photography only gets interesting if you really go deep into it, and images start to pop up that most people wouldn’t get because they don’t spend enough hours doing it.”

When Solkær started the project, he says, he read poetry and studied paintings of the Whispers dating back to the 17th century, and was struck to see that the fascination people felt at the time mirrored his own. He says his bird photographs are an attempt to capture “a fragment of eternity”. He estimates he’s been out around 200 nights, and each time the show has been unique, never to be repeated.

Ribe, Denmark.
Ribe, Denmark.

This, he says, makes the scene timeless and at the same time keeps it fresh.

“It’s such a fleeting feeling. You know it’s happening right now, in a second it’s gone and it’s never going to come back, and I find that really fascinating. It’s one of the most exciting things I’ve ever tried. It can compete with Arcade Fire or Amy Winehouse on a big stage at Glastonbury and be on stage with them – I think that’s just as exciting.

Black Sun is at the NandaHobbs Gallery in Sydney until June 11.