The phrase “Renaissance man” is bandied about freely when it comes to Bay Area artist, composer and instrument-maker Walter Kitundu. But the term fits. The inventor of the phonoharp (an instrument that beautifully incorporates a photograph), Kronos Quartet collaborator, Headlands Center for the Arts artist-in-residence and distinguished visiting professor of wood arts at the California College of the Arts was recognized in 2008 with a MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the Genius Award. Bird photography is one of Kitundu’s lesser-known yet impressive talents. I was fortunate enough to catch him on the fly, via email, before he shows his enthralling images and discusses his work at Randall Museum Thursday, Sept. 10.
Q: How did you start to photograph birds?
Walter Kitundu: I was granted a residency in Eastern Iceland in 2004, and a friend gave me a digital camera to document the trip. I used it to photograph all the things you interact with but never remember -- doorknobs, fences, puddles, etc...
When I returned to San Francisco, I started photographing the gulls outside of the Exploratorium, where I was also an artist-in-residence. I was fascinated by the endless shapes and forms I saw in the frozen images of their wings. As I was watching them, a heron flew by and I photographed it, and a hummingbird appeared, then a Red-Shouldered Hawk, and this long-dormant interest in birds began to re-emerge. A friend then gave me a book on Birds of Northern California and it became a passion of mine to be out in the world trying to find a way into the strange and wonderful lives of birds.
Q: Where do you shoot? Any unusual or challenges spots?
WK: I've learned to have my camera with me wherever I go. We live in an amazing city for anyone interested in birds. Golden Gate Park, Ocean Beach, the Presidio, Crissy Field, all of the little four-square-block neighborhood parks, each of them can be full of birds engaging in territorial behavior, mating, nesting, preening, bathing and singing.
Even walking down Divisadero you might see a young Red-Tailed Hawk swoop over traffic and land on a streetlight. Most of the photos I have taken have been from public pathways and sidewalks.
The main thing I've learned is to be patient and watchful -- the birds will tell you where you should be. And luck never hurts.
Q: The images on your Web site and bird blog are amazing -- how do you create them? Do you use PhotoShop? Do you use any unusual gear?
WK: The photos are taken in the field. Post processing is usually limited to cropping and adjusting contrast and color. I tend not to clone out objects or branches ... and I don't like assembling images on the computer.
I spend a lot of time perched on rocks or under trees in the wind and cold to get images that tell a story without having to fabricate one. Birds, particularly urban birds, can get into amazing situations, and I feel very fortunate that I've been able to document some of them.
Q: What do you hope to get when you go out shooting? Do you have specific subjects or targets or goals when you venture out?
WK: Sometimes I'll read a report of a Bald Eagle at Bolinas Lagoon or a Pileated Woodpecker near Mount Tam, and I'll make special trips to try an document those birds. The Mountain Bluebird that was seen at Fort Funston or the Worm Eating Warbler in the Financial District are also good examples.
Most of the time you end up photographing other things while you wait for the thing you set out for, or worse, you miss out on wonderful opportunities because you are so focused on some target species. I prefer to just go out to see what there is to see. At first I thought I had to be out there every second of the day or I might miss something. I learned that nature is always spectacular and often unpredictable.
You can go out for 10 minutes at lunch and get the shot of a lifetime or wait for six hours at a place known for birds and come away photographically empty-handed. The best part of it is -- whether or not you get the shot -- you still got to spend time outside pursuing a passion ... so it's hard to go wrong.
Q: How did you come to shoot Patch? And what made you continue with that particular project?
WK: I was photographing hummingbirds in Alta Plaza Park in Pacific Heights when a young Red-Tailed Hawk flew over my head. I kept my distance but chased that bird all over the park, watching it hunt for the gophers living in those terraced hillsides.
After two weeks of following that bird, it flew down from a street light and headed straight for me. I put my camera down and froze thinking it was finally fed up with being followed and imagining talons in my face. But, it just landed, softly, about four feet from me, and ate a caterpillar. I took a few pictures, and the hawk and I sat there together for about a minute.
Then someone came walking down the sidewalk, and Patch (named for a white patch on the back of her head) took off to continue hunting. I was hooked! I came back to document that bird three or four times a week for the next seven months and got to watch her go through the transition from a juvenile to an adult bird.
Often she would grab gophers from the ground just feet from me and pay me no mind as I hovered with my camera while she ate. It was a privileged and rare look into the daily life of a bird of prey trying to eke out a living in the city.
Q: Will the images also be on display? Or is the best place to see them at your talk and on your blog or Web site?
WK: Many images are on display on the Web site or scattered throughout the blog, and some are new photos I've been saving for this talk. This will probably be the most comprehensive photo review I've ever done in public. I'm hoping to use these images in several books I'd like to publish next year.
Q: What's the rarest or hardest-to-capture bird you've photographed?
WK: The rarest bird has to be the California Condors I photographed just a few weeks ago. I'd never seen them before, and suddenly there they were, cruising by at eye level, 15 feet out from the cliff at Big Sur. That was truly breathtaking.
As for the toughest to get on film, many photographers have what they call their "nemesis bird." There is nothing sinister about it -- it just means that a certain bird has always evaded you, and you've never gotten a clear, beautiful shot of it. And once you get that particular shot, your nemesis bird changes.
Right now, I'd love to get images of a Winter Wren, a tiny little bird with a 10-second-long, beautiful song that you can often hear in the Presidio and Golden Gate Park. They stay low in the brush, in the shadows, and they are quick to move once they know you've seen them.
Q: Have your music-making, composition and instrument-making dovetailed or intersected with your bird photography? Has one informed the other?
WK: They are definitely connected, but the connection is tough to articulate.
One obvious way is that bird shapes have started turning up in the sculptural forms of the instruments. I have been commissioned to create a large mural of my bird photography combined with wing-shaped musical marimbas for the new terminal at SFO.
Another less-evident connection to music is something I've learned from hours watching birds. I've found that they are consummate improvisors. They may take off from a perch in the same direction every day for weeks, but the possibility of them leaving in a different direction always exists. They are highly attuned to the demands of the moment.
That bird's environment may have particular rhythms and cycles, which can lead to a feeling of predictability when it comes to that bird and its intentions. But it is always prepared to react in a way that responds to the demands of each particular moment. That is a wonderful thing to witness, and I think it correlates well to the awareness one has to have when playing improvised music.
Q: What's coming up for you next in photography or music or...?
WK: I'm trying to improvise and see what comes next. I have a few plans for books I'd like to make, trips I'd like to take, but I'm trying to keep things simple and take one step at a time.
I did recently finish an instrument for Wu Man and Kronos Quartet for a wonderfully theatrical piece that will premiere in New York in November. I'm looking forward to being there for the show, then perhaps stealing down to Central Park to take a few pictures.
Walter Kitundu will show and talk about his bird photography at the San Francisco Naturalist Society event, “The Amazing Bird Photography of Walter Kitundu,” Thursday, Sept. 10, 7:30-9 p.m., at the Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, SF. Free. (415) 225-3830. www.sfns.org, www.randallmuseum.org