Growing up in India to an Indian mother and Anglo-Australian father, the artist Leila Jeffreys found herself drawn to the myriad rainbow-coloured birds.
“I was a real dreamer,” she recalls over tea in Sydney, where she lives with her husband, son and dog, Ronnie Barker. “We travelled a lot and I never really knew the names of the places we went to. But if there was an animal or a bird I just zoned in. I imagined their stories and their lives. I always saw them and I saw their characters.”
Jeffreys, 47, has made a career photographing birds. But her work is a far cry from nature photography. She shoots the animals, often sourced from wildlife rescue centres, zoos or individual homes in a studio, creating human-style portraits of black cockatoos, tawny owls, pink pigeons and golden finches.
Human portraiture, she insists, “shows the characters of each particular animal. Birds are incredibly beautiful if you stop and pay attention.”
Jeffreys is holding her first exhibition in Australia in five years. High Society, which opens at Sydney’s Olsen Gallery this month before travelling to New York in November, focuses exclusively on budgerigars. And although there are still the portraits that made her name, this time she is trying something new: shooting entire flocks.
For the photos, 300 budgerigars sourced from different owners were brought into an aviary in a studio. They were then separated by colour and allowed to perch on the branches of sculptural looking dead trees. Shot against a white background, the birds look like a sprinkling of delicate yellow, green or blue leaves.
The budgerigars were tame. “I wanted to work with birds I knew would be happy and calm and easy.” Still there were challenges posed by the sheer numbers of her subjects. Jeffreys went through 20kg of birdseed, and she had to paint each bird’s toenail with different nail polish in order to identify them.
The resulting images – ethereal and architectural – are visually gorgeous. But there is also a larger message about the environment: “There is this symbiotic relationship between birds and trees. Trees need birds because they pollinate, and birds need trees because it’s shelter, it’s a food source.”
Loss of habitat is threatening that relationship: “You remove that tree, you remove a whole society of a different species.”
For Jeffreys, budgerigars also reference humankind’s guiding hand in evolution. Native to Australia, “Budgies in the wild are only green and gold and live in flocks of tens of thousands,” she says. “Then they’ve been brought into aviaries and bred and other colour mutations comes out.”
So with the 2019 Guardian/Bird Life Australia bird of the year launching on 28 October, which is her favourite Australian bird?
Jeffreys winces. “That is not an easy decision!” She finally settles on the forest red-tailed black cockatoo, found in Western Australia, where she owns a block of bush land. “I’ve been camping there since I was a kid and the call of those birds are just embedded in my brain,” she says. “I go at night. The sky is black and the stars are bright and I hear the birds calling.”
Next Jeffreys will do a series on seabirds. She has just returned from an expedition to the Arctic Circle. Although she shoots in studios, seeing birds in their natural environment is critical to her work.
“If you’re going to do a story on seabirds, I really think you need to get to the remote places they’re living and experience that life,” she says. “There is an energy that exists in the wild; it has a different pulse.”
• Leila Jeffreys’ High Society is on exhibition from Wednesday 16 October until Saturday 9 November at the Olsen Gallery, Woollahra. Bird Nerd: The Art Of Leila Jeffreys is now available on ABC iView. A screening and Q&A event will take place on Saturday 19 October between 6-8pm at the gallery. Visit olsengallery.com.