Best known for capturing iconic images of musicians such as Paul McCartney, Bjork, The White Stripes, and Amy Winehouse, among numerous others, Danish photographer Søren Solkær has recently pursued a fascination which lures him to quiet, dispersed, natural places. Far from the lights and noises of the city, he seeks murmurations, a phenomenon that occurs in the early evening during the winter months, when starlings, numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands, flock together and move through the sky in stunning visual patterns and rhythms. Solkær tells us about this project and about his newest book, Black Sun, available now.
Dovetail: Was there a particular moment or event that inspired you to begin documenting the movements of starlings?
Søren Solkær: When I was 8 years old, my parents took me to see the starling murmurations. That left an imprint in my mind’s eye. In 2017, I had just finished a big retrospective portrait book and felt it was time to try something completely new. I thought it would just be a project I’d do for a weekend or a week. But I got completely fascinated by the phenomenon, and have now spent four years photographing starlings.
D: Is nature something you felt you wanted to connect to more over the past few years?
S: I was very close to nature as child. Growing up in the countryside, I spent time in nature every day. For the next 30 years I spent most of my time in big cities. In the last few years, nature has been pulling me back. I still live in central Copenhagen though.
D: You’re well known for portraits of musicians, and an image from the Black Sun series just appeared as the cover image for New Order’s new song, “Be a Rebel.” Does the rhythm of the starlings’ movements correspond to your connection to music?
S: I think starling murmurations are very poetic and rhythmic. At times they can be very dramatic, dark, and punk in their expression. I can most definitely see a connection to music.
D: Do you ever film the murmurations as moving images, or is it important to capture them in single moments in time?
S: I have done much of the project with my girlfriend, Tine, who also makes film. In the past year I have also started filming, using a second camera on a tripod.
D: What is the significance of the title, Black Sun?
S: Black Sun is a translation of the Danish “Sort Sol.” It is a term used to describe a starling murmuration, and its ability to eclipse the sun due to the huge flocks of black starlings in the sky. So where the English term refers to the sound you hear, the Danish term refers to a visual aspect of the phenomenon.
D: You have described the series as a “slice of eternity” captured in a moment. Is this something that you feel applies to this series in a specific way, or is that also a general approach you have toward your work with photography?
S: That is a feeling I get when I watch this phenomenon in the realization that it has always looked just like that–even a thousand years ago. I read a poem from 1799 which described exactly what a murmuration looks like, and it made me feel that I was dealing with something eternal.
“Starlings in vast flights drove along like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Elipse & Oblong – now a balloon with the car suspended, now a concaved Semicircle – & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim & shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening!”
— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, on 27 November 1799, Notebooks, I, 582
D: Do you have to plan carefully to know where or when to capture the most dramatic images of these murmurations, or is it occasionally by chance?
S: It requires a lot of planning, patience, and luck. Only one night in ten provides spectacular shapes in the sky to photograph.
D: Do you travel to specific locations to find them?
S: I started out only photographing by the Wadden Sea, on the West Coast of Denmark. But I got curious about where the birds migrated to when they left Denmark. That led me to the Netherlands, Rome, Catalonia, and England. I use Instagram a lot, where I follow certain starling murmuration-related hashtags in different languages.
D: Are there any challenges you’ve faced or lessons you’ve internalized in photographing out in nature, as opposed to much of the work you do with human subjects or city street photography?
D: Do you have friends or assistants with you when you are capturing the movements of these birds, or do you enjoy this time to go solo?
S: I am mostly on my own. I enjoy some solitude in nature. Sometimes my girlfriend comes along. It is always valuable to have someone to share a beautiful experience with.
D: Have the events of this year impacted how you feel about image-making?
S: I have gone a lot more local. My biggest struggle is how to share my physical work with an audience. I usually travel around the world to do exhibitions. I am printing a book right now. That must be the way to go for now.
D: As an artist, what do you hope viewers experience or find in your work?
S: I am trying to look deeply into my subject matters. Focus on something for longer and with more intensity than most people would do. I am hoping that this connection and energy reveals itself to the viewers of my work.
D: As an ongoing series, is there anything you would like to explore further or learn more about in making these images?
S: I am getting more interested in filming murmurations. But I am far from done with photographing them. It is a never-ending miracle.
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