Leila Jeffreys has been working on her book Birdland for the good part of a year. Through her striking fine art bird portraiture photographs, Leila has become an unofficial poster girl for native Australian bird life and conservationism. People who weren’t interested in birds suddenly are, and some of those people even have larger-than-life portraits of birds hanging in their living rooms.
As early as she can remember, Leila has always been enamoured with wildlife. She spent her formative years growing up in Papua New Guinea, India, Perth and Collie in Western Australia, and was keen a ‘garden bird watcher’ as a child. ‘I later morphed into a more serious bird watcher, and started to help ornithologists tag birds,’ she says. Taking photos of her feathered friends soon followed.
Today, Leila’s wildlife photography is in demand. She is commercially represented by a number of high profile galleries in Australia, London and Hong Kong, and exhibits regularly. She remains grounded though, despite her success, and admits even after all of these years she still feels nervous when she meets a rare bird for the first time.
Leila’s latest project, Birdland, is a 192-page, hardback, labour of love. The book features a collection of Leila’s mesmerising photographs of native birds, from a decade spent visiting animal rescue and conservation groups; 20,000 words worth of anecdotes about each bird she has encountered; a foreword by Australia’s best known ecologist Tim Low; and an introduction by Dr Sarah Engledow, historian for the National Portrait Gallery.
Of the 72 Australian native birds featured in Birdland, there is one exception – a native New Zealand bird called Sirocco the Kākāpo. Sirocco is one of just over a hundred of his kind left and Kākāpo Recovery is working hard to save his species. Leila describes this species as one of the strangest living parrots to roam the planet, ‘a Kākāpo is a nocturnal, flightless, super smart, huge, heavy bird that can inflate itself like a football and let out a booming call to attract a female from up to 5 kilometres away.’
Leila’s approach to her work goes beyond the lens, she really gets to know her subjects. She was starstruck when meeting Sirocco to take his portrait. He is a celebrity in the bird world, and the poster child for his endangered species. Sirocco is a bit of a misunderstood ‘diva’, and Leila was intent on capturing this particular bird’s eccentric personality. Leila mentions Sirocco lives on a remote island but has a holiday house when he goes on tour, to give some context.
‘The shoot had to be at night, the room in which I was to photograph him had to have the door open, so that Sirocco could walk out if he didn’t want to be photographed, equipment and clothes sterilised, hair washed and special boots and overalls worn to protect him from disease,’ Leila explains. ‘The first time he saw me, he intently looked me up and down, gave a stern look, turned around and walked straight back out!’
Soon enough Sirocco warmed up and Leila was able to take his portrait. He is her most notable subject to date. ‘He is so famous he has his own mobile phone number!’
Birdland is published by Hachette and is available for $49.99 here. Leila Jeffreys is represented by Olsen Irwin in Sydney, Sophie Gannon Gallery in Melbourne, Purdy Hicks Gallery in London, and Cat Street Gallery in Hong Kong.