THERE’S A REASON Woody Allen once dubbed pigeons the rats of the sky. They’re filthy. They poop on everything, and that stuff can carry disease. And they pester you mercilessly, especially when you’re just trying to eat a sandwich. Everyone knows they’re gross.
Well, almost everyone. Photographer Mårten Lange loves them, and says pigeons aren’t the problem, cities are. “Pigeons are dirty because cities are dirty,” says Lange, whose book, Citizen, features striking black-and-white portraits of Columba livia domestica. “So if you find them disgusting, look around you.”
The Swedish photographer, who has made similarlystunning portraits of crows in Tokyo, started photographing pigeons while living in London last year. He was drawn to how they struggle, much like humans, to overcome the challenges of a hostile cityscape. Each day presents a number of dangers: flying into a window, being eaten by a cat, losing a toe to those bits of string that always seem to wind around their feet. “These birds are very often quite beat up, dirty, crippled and just sad, but they never give up,” he says.
Though pigeons typically gather in flocks, Lange shot them individually using a long lens to blur the background and an on-camera flash to make the birds look like cut-outs. Given that pigeons are essentially fearless, getting close was no problem. “The flash would make them twitch sometimes, but they were quite indifferent to being photographed,” Lange says.
The whimsical portraits look like they were made in a studio. Each bird appears surprisingly unique and regal, its eyes and gestures communicating emotions like fear, anger, playfulness, and contentment. You almost expect them to talk. “They are individuals,” Lange says, “just like us.”
Maybe he’s right. Pigeons are pretty smart, after all. And they’re industrious, capable of finding their way home across great distances—a trait that made them particularly useful for communication during the First and Second World Wars. Charles Darwin and Nikola Tesla both loved them. And they can actually be quite beautiful, as Lange’s photographs show. But the photographer isn’t trying to make anyone love pigeons, only appreciate them as something more than flying rats. “I’m just pointing to a correlation between our lives and theirs,” he says. “Our habitat is their habitat.”
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