Woody Allen famously called pigeons flying rats. Photographer David Stephenson calls them thoroughbreds of the sky.
He also realizes the common perception of the pigeon skews more toward Allen’s view. But Stephenson has a growing body of work that could make people reconsider the much-maligned bird.
Stephenson, aka The Pigeon Photographer, runs a website and Instagram feed where his photos attempt to show the intelligence, strength and iridescent beauty of homing pigeons, which he raises in his backyard near Lexington, Kentucky.
“When we see them circling in the air, they move so fast our eye can’t comprehend the beautiful details, the way the feathers curve, the upstroke or downstroke of the wings,” Stephenson told Cult of Mac. “I just want people to appreciate them more. They are beautiful, insanely tough and intelligent.”
Stephenson, 44, is well known in photojournalism circles, especially in Kentucky, where he spent 12 years as an award-winning shooter and multimedia journalist for The Lexington Herald-Leader. He is now on the faculty at the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky.
Throughout his career, Stephenson was the quintessential craftsman, adept at shooting news, sports, portraiture and complex photo and video stories.
His two loves first came together when he was 8, climbing a thorny hawthorn tree with a Kodak Instamatic to photograph a pair of nesting mourning doves.
He later learned about a neighbor with racing pigeons and was able to buy some and raise them in his backyard through high school. He had dreams about pigeons and even wrote book reports about them in elementary school.
But racing pigeons are not conducive to college life, and when it came time for Stephenson to pick a school and career path – he got a photojournalism degree from Western Kentucky University – he gave up raising his birds to concentrate on photography.
Exhibiting the keen homing instinct of a pigeon, Stephenson found his way back to raising birds. While on assignment for the Herald-Leader in 2006, Stephenson did a story on a pigeon racer. It rekindled his passion and Stephenson soon began buying birds again.
Stephenson’s pigeon photographs achieve at least one desired effect – discussion. Talking to him about the artistry of a particular picture leads to a rather thorough primer on bird science and behavior.
On the day I interviewed Stephenson, he had just returned from a training session. He had driven some of his pigeons, entered in an upcoming race, some 30 miles away from home. He released them and when he returned, his wife indicated the birds had beat him home by 15 or 20 minutes.
Pigeons generally have two things on their mind — food and sex.
Science has not fully explained the homing instinct but Stephenson said pigeons generally have two things on their mind — food and sex. They understand they can get both at their home loft.
“Their heart is so fascinating and they are so tough,” he said. “I’ve had some come home with buckshot in them, one was attacked by a dog and when it got home it looked at me like, ‘OK, I’m back. Where’s my food?'”
Hawks are a constant worry. If he sees his pigeons circling high above, he knows a hawk is nearby. They tend to swoop in as a pigeon lands and Stephenson will sometimes stand in his backyard with a long stick to fend off one of the raptors when his pigeons attempt landing.
He had one pigeon return with his chest clearly ripped open by a hawk. Stephenson retrieved a sewing kit and watched a YouTube video on how to execute a suture. He stitched the pigeon back together and the bird survived.
Stephenson’s photos are made easy in part by the 24-hour access he has to his subjects. He incorporates a variety of shooting styles, from straightforward field reportage to studio work. He sometimes lights the inside of the loft, home to anywhere from 40 to 60 pigeons. He also shoots a lot at the races in which he enters his pigeons. A short race is considered 250 miles, a long one 500, and Stephenson says he has both sprinters and marathoners.
He produces a yearly calendar he sells, the proceeds of which pay for bags of feed or racers imported from England. His pictures appear in pigeon magazines, books and research papers, and are also purchased by pigeon fanciers.
Stephenson would love to one day publish a book of his pigeon photos and he thought of doing an exhibit. But he chuckles because the cost of framing one print could buy him three bags of feed.
“It’s a dying sport in the U.S.,” he said. “It’s just a victim of culture and society. People don’t do stuff with livestock in their backyards anymore.”