The subject and the idea for this book project presented themselves to me during one of my frequent visits to my family in southern California. I was walking on the beach at Ventura Harbor one day recently when I happened to notice an unusual number of dead birds along the shore. I had of course seen dead birds there before, but not like this time when there seemed to be a bird corpse every fifty or hundred feet, bringing to my mind Mathew Brady’s images of scattered corpses of the dead soldiers in the American Civil War.
Feeling somewhat intrigued I looked closely at the dead birds perhaps for the first time. There were different kinds of birds that populate that part of the California shore: sea gulls, herons, cormorants, pelicans, other shore birds. And the more I looked the more fascinated I became, not just with the question as to what was killing them, but with the sheer physical reality of these corpses. I was so taken in by the tone and the texture of their bodies that after a while the idea of what I was looking at being dead bodies became unimportant. It all became abstract to me. The texture of their bodies appeared to me to be the texture of death itself. What I was looking at was decay, degeneration, and the slow but natural process of life turning into dust and nothingness.
I was reminded of the fascination that Death has had on thinkers, philosophers, poets and artists since the beginning of humanity. Were the ancient pyramids in Egypt, besides being tombs for the pharaohs, not also a monument to Death itself?
Artists through the centuries have dealt with death, dying, the threat and fear of death, escape from death, thoughts of death, and preparation for death. From the mystery and reality of death were born many a myth and ritual in ancient cultures and religions throughout the world.
This fascination with Death has continued in the present times. Modern artists have engaged with the theme of dying and have depicted Death in its physical as well as metaphysical form.
Some like Damien Hirst have taken to utilize a dead body’s shocking impact to shake the viewer from complacency about life. More recently the wide popularity of the exhibit “Bodies” attests to the fascination that living humans feel with the hard physical nature of a dead body.
In some small way my own eyes were forced by the dead birds on the beach to see how death looks, animal or human.