An Interview with Kenn Kaufman
THE DEBATE OVER USING PAINTINGS VERSUS PHOTOS IN FIELD GUIDES HAS RAGED WITHIN THE BIRDING COMMUNITY FOR YEARS. CAN YOU TELL US WHY THAT IS?
Basically, both paintings and photographs have serious drawbacks. Paintings, even by the best artists, seldom capture the subtleties of shape and expression that make each bird distinctive. Photos may convey these subtleties quite well; however, an "unedited" photo is often very misleading, in ways that are not obvious at first glance. Wild birds are photographed under conditions that vary a lot (lighting, distance, even things like different lenses or film types). In comparing two photos, we can NEVER trust what they seem to show us about relative colors or sizes. And what looks like a distinctive field mark in the photo may be just a shadow or an artifact of lighting. Unless we already know the bird well, we have no way of knowing which aspects of the photograph to believe.
WHY HAS THE TIME COME FOR SUCH A REVOLUTIONARY APPROACH TO FIELD GUIDES?
Before now, it just wasn't technically feasible. More than twenty years ago, I had decided that the best way to illustrate a bird guide would be to use photographs, but to "edit" them somehow. At the time, there was no good way to do that. Then came the digital revolution. Digital editing of images became a reality, and I started working on the first Focus Guide in the mid-1990s, just as it was becoming practical to do this on a large scale.
WHAT DID ROGER TORY PETERSON ACCOMPLISH FOR BIRDING, AND IN WHAT WAY DO YOU FEEL BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA CONTINUES HIS LEGACY?
To my mind, Peterson was one of the towering figures of the 20th century, and he had a phenomenal impact on nature study and conservation all over the world. His talents were remarkably varied, but probably he was most gifted at public education. He had a genius for taking complicated information about birds and nature and boiling it down to the essentials, presenting it in a crystal clear way, so that anyone could quickly learn to recognize and appreciate birds or other aspects of nature.
Peterson was my hero and role model from the time
I was a little kid, and later I was lucky enough to know him and to work with him on
several projects. I'd like to think that Birds of North America carries on his work in a
way. Recently, bird books have been shifting toward a more and more technical stance; this
Focus Guide is an attempt to cut through that with a clear, direct approach, to
make sure that bird identification is totally accessible to
Roger Tory Peterson was adept at both photography and painting, and knew the limitations of both; and he was always interested in new ideas. If he had lived longer, or if the technology for digital editing of photos had been developed sooner, I suspect that Roger would have been the first to dream up this new method of illustration and put it into practice.
THE BIRDING FIELD GUIDE MARKET HAS MANY COMPETING TITLES. WHY IS BIRDS OF NORTH AMERICA SO DESPERATELY NEEDED?
Most recent bird guides have fallen into one of two camps. Either they've tried to simplify by leaving out some birds altogether, which is bad news if you're looking at one of the omitted species. Or they've tried too hard to impress the expert birders.
It's true that there are now many experienced birders who know their common birds and just want tons of detail on species that are very difficult to identify. Some supposedly "general" field guides have tried to please those experts, by skimping on the common birds and cramming in brief notes about really esoteric field marks for the difficult or the super-rare. That's fine for the thousands of experts, but it's terrible for the millions of people who are still trying to learn their local birds. I even know people who have been birding for years who are just bewildered and disheartened by some of the recent bird guides.
With this Focus Guide, I tried to strike the right balance for the vast majority of users. It covers every species and every variation that one can expect to see. And for each of them, the focus is this: what does a person need to know if they are seeing this bird for the very first time? What are the essentials, the basics, that are left out of some other books? My intention was to create the perfect guide for the person who wants to learn the birds.
SOME EXPERT BIRDERS ARE FAMOUSLY QUICK TO DENOUNCE ANYTHING AIMED AT THE BEGINNING BIRDER 0R AT THE GENERAL NATURE ENTHUSIAST. CAN YOU SPEAK FROM YOUR PASSION FOR CONSERVATION AT WHY THIS IS POTENTIALLY HARMFUL FOR BIRDS?
Birders are usually generous and sharing, but sometimes they fall into an "in-crowd" mentality and lose their perspective on the larger picture.
Experts need different kinds of information than most other birders. I addressed this when I wrote and illustrated the Peterson Field Guide to Advanced Birding, ten years ago. That book gave lots of highly detailed data on just a few of the most difficult identifications. Roger Peterson and I had discussed this, and concluded that it was better to put such information in a separate, supplementary guide, where birders could pick it up after they had gained some experience.
Unfortunately, some "hardcore birders" today claim that every beginner should start with some advanced or expert guide. It's the approach that says everyone should learn to swim by being dumped into the deep end of the pool. Sure, it will work for some people, but most will be discouraged and will quit. And we can't afford to have anyone discouraged from birding, because birds need all the friends they can get! We won't save habitat for bird populations unless we have broad public support. That's why I'm totally opposed to in-crowds and cliques and exclusivity. I want absolutely everyone to have the chance to enjoy birds and nature.
From this standpoint, it's obvious that a standard bird guide should be aimed at the millions of "casual"' birders, not the few thousand "master" birders. But those in the latter group are highly vocal. They don't seem to realize that, by putting down beginners, they're actually hurting the survival chances of the birds.
YOU'VE HAD A LOT OF EXPERIENCE DRAWING AND PAINTING BIRDS IN TRADITIONAL MEDIA. WAS IT HARD TO SWITCH TO DOING ILLUSTRATIONS ON THE COMPUTER?
It was a shock at first, but once I'd mastered the software, the experience was not totally different. In editing images, I was not typing in numbers or writing programs. Instead, I had a large digitizing tablet and a device shaped like a ballpoint pen; moving this device across the tablet was a lot like moving a pencil or brush across a drawing board, except that the results would show up on the computer screen. I'd be working on an image -- sharpening, blending, darkening, lightening, erasing flaws, shifting colors -- and it would be a lot like putting the final touches on a painting.
SO YOUR BACKGROUND AS A "TRADITIONAL" BIRD ARTIST WAS HELPFUL TO THIS PROJECT?
Oh, not just helpful -- absolutely essential. Even in good bird photos, there are many cases where details are partly obscured, so I was essentially painting them in -- or figuring out which faint details needed to be enhanced, and which were just artifacts of light that needed to be brushed out. At that level, it required the same level of knowledge and skill as real bird painting.
My background as an artist also came into play when I was choosing the photos to use. For years I've been going out with sketchbooks to draw birds from life. For the Focus Guide, before I picked out photos for a particular species, I would look at my field sketches to review the typical postures and poses of that bird. And I'd refer to my sketches again when I was editing those photographs later. It's no exaggeration to say that the illustrations in Birds of North America are a blend of painting and photography.
Incidentally, I still enjoy using traditional media a lot more -- I still sketch birds from life, and I still paint for fun. But for the accuracy of the final result, there's no comparison. Digitally enhanced photos are the winners, hands down.
YOUR TITLE PAGE LISTS THREE PEOPLE AS "C 0 L L A B 0 R A T 0 R S." HOW DID THEY CONTRIBUTE TO THIS FIRST FOCUS GUIDE?
We had a great team. I wrote all the text and drew all the maps, but the illustrations involved a huge amount of work.
My friends Rick and Nora Bowers are professional nature photographers. Early in the project, I literally spent weeks sorting through their slides and selecting hundreds of images for the book. And they took on the task of scanning the photos into the computer. The little desktop scanners on the market today can't produce the high-quality scans that we needed, so we had to buy a big professional-grade drum scanner. Rick Bowers had a major task on his hands keeping that device running in good order, as well as maintaining our other computers. Nora Bowers did much of the work of soliciting photos from dozens of other photographers, assembling batches for me to choose from.
My wife, Lynn Hassler Kaufman, is a birder and botanist with a great design sense. She worked on the layout for most of the plates -- rearranging the separate bird images for a more pleasing design. She also reviewed all the text for clarity. And she put in a lot of time (as we all did) on the job of separating birds from their original backgrounds in the photos.
In addition, don't forget that professionals from Houghton Mifflin were heavily involved from the start. No other publisher understands nature guides as well as Houghton Mifflin. I already had good friends there, people I'd worked with on my previous bird books, and they were very much involved in every decision about how to make Birds of North America as good as possible.
WHY DO YOU THINK THAT BIRDING IS MORE POPULAR TODAY THAN EVER BEFORE?
Technology has improved our lives in a lot of ways, but of course
it has also had some negative side-effects. So much in our lives now is artificial and
superficial. We spend so much of our time indoors and isolated. Birding is the perfect
antidote to all that. It gets us outdoors (or at least looking out the window!), focusing
on things that are real and alive and independent. It can provide physical exercise, the
mental challenge of finding and identifying new species, the chance for surprise and
discovery, and wonderful aesthetic experiences.
Other aspects of nature study could do the same things, but birds are by far the most accessible. To see something like bears or whales, by contrast, most of us would have to make a special trip. Not so with birds. There are great birding spots everywhere. Even a tiny park in the biggest city may be visited by dozens of colorful birds during spring and fall migration. Birding provides a way to connect with nature, no matter where you are.