Tim Flach's animal photography is unique. Mostly working in a studio, he creates pictures that emphasise the extraordinary and make us see even familiar animals afresh. It's not just that his images are beautifully lit and highly detailed, they help us to form an emotional connection with the animals, often by highlighting human-like appearances or expressions.
To date, Tim has produced four animal photography books. The first, Equus (2008), focused on horses, and was followed by his study of canines in Dogs Gods (2010). Then came books that showed a broad range of animals: More Than Human (2012), in which he aimed to "illuminate the relationships between human and non-human animals" and Endangered (2017), which focused on at-risk species.
Tim is currently working on a new project photographing birds, from the rare and exotic to the everyday. Shot entirely on Canon equipment, it features a selection of species that Tim finds especially spectacular or intriguing, from the grey crowned crane to the blue tit. He plans to release a book of the project in 2021.
In this exclusive interview, Tim reveals the techniques he uses, why he finds animals fascinating to photograph, the 'controlled chaos' of his studio and his aims for his ongoing bird project.
"It can sometimes be difficult to understand a human, but understanding an animal seems that bit further removed. That has always intrigued me. I deal in images, so the question is how we derive meaning from those images, in relation to our understanding of what those animals mean to us.
"I'm interested in how anthropomorphism can be used in animal portraits – the whole idea of connecting something we see as human in the animal world with our world. I think that's a powerful tool for communicators. Now more than ever we should question how we connect with people and make them care about the natural world."
"I'm interested in ways of engaging people with nature. You've really got to do it in a matter of seconds – you have to either challenge or surprise people, or keep them moving from image to image. It might be that a picture is ambiguous so you don't quite know what you're looking at. As a photographer, you have to keep directing the viewer to things you think are interesting."
"I've been working with researchers studying the sorts of images that people are most likely to care about and respond to emotionally. I'm interested in the animal portrait, so I thought instead of going on location, which I usually do for my projects, I'd concentrate on birds as a subject without the distraction of a background.
"Working in the tradition of ornithologist and British bird painter John Gould and the American ornithologist and illustrator John James Audubon, I really wanted to explore how to give the birds personality and character; to create stylised images that really celebrate the species. So, for example, I've taken a really small bird like a blue tit and done a close-up portrait of its head."
"I'm essentially photographing birds bred in captivity. Sometimes I go where they are kept, but most have been photographed in my studio. I've built a mobile aviary, which is designed so the birds can't see me. I've also installed a turntable that works really well. The birds sit on a perch which moves around – they don't seem to mind that at all. This enables me to take pictures of birds with more stylised lighting than maybe has been previously possible. I've mainly used studio lighting, but with some of the bigger birds I've used natural light. I think daylight is really beautiful. So it's nice to have the mix."
"Sometimes I've photographed five different species in a day, but others take more time. With hummingbirds, for instance, we had to do literally hundreds of shots to get just three images. One bird I want to photograph for the project is a tragopan, also known as the horned pheasant. It has an amazing coloured bib. I spent days waiting for one to be available in Belgium, but it didn't happen. This particular bird is so surprising that I'll probably invest another few days on it – so that will be almost a week on one picture."
"Yes, and I think you have to accept that. All you can do is create the stage on which something might happen. As they say, if you don't go fishing, you don't catch anything. So in a sense, when you bring the ingredients together, hopefully something happens that's outside your reasoning. I think it's what surprises you that's most rewarding."
"It's really intriguing when you find certain types of shots building in a book. I've started putting together a set of portraits of small birds, which wasn't something I thought I'd do at the beginning of the project. I thought I was going to have lots of big birds of prey – I do have them, but not very many. The birds that have made more interesting pictures weren't the ones I imagined when I started."
"This was never intended as a field book or an encyclopaedia. I'm hoping I've distilled some of the structures and forms of these birds in such a manner that textile and fashion designers might get excited about them. I'm hoping it will have an unusually broad reach for a bird book.
"There are 10,800 bird species and I'll only include about 80 in total. So all I'm doing is a visual exploration of some bird species. I hope, just by giving that sense of wonderment, people will think about the birds' situation; and giving the birds character and personality will make this book even more emotional than past projects might have been."