Dark into Light
Crows and ravens don’t deserve our dread. In Murder, photographer Guillaume Simoneau offers a surprising new vision of black birds.
The title of Guillaume Simoneau’s latest book of photographs, Murder, is a red herring.
We expect some kind of violence but encounter images of black birds and remember that “murder” is the collective noun for crows. In this complex and energetic meditation on the symbolism of crows and ravens, Simoneau plays with that double entendre. Among images of crows perched on a young boy’s shoulders (the artist himself, we learn) and mysterious Japanese landscapes, the acclaimed Canadian photographer includes shots of a trained falcon killing crows, portraits of the falcon with blood dripping from its beak, and dead chicks—the falcon’s food—lying scattered in mud under a soft, late-afternoon light.
The wordplay of the title is just bait, however. Simoneau subverts our expectations at a much deeper level. The real surprise of Murder materializes slowly, as image by image the artist nudges us past our ancient biases. Crows and ravens have a dark reputation, and Simoneau purposely draws on our willingness to assume a bleak vision of these fabled birds. Humans have long feared black birds, associating them with dread and death. Whether consciously or unconsciously, their appearance signals an ill omen, a harbinger of doom. But rather than amplifying the natural horror that black birds awaken in us, Simoneau elicits this instinct and then deftly reverses it. Murder isn’t about death, but life.
The project of Murder was born in a snowy forest nearly 40 years ago, the first time Simoneau heard the sound of crows screaming. In the winter of 1982, when Simoneau was four years old, his father pulled him on a sled into the woods on their property in rural Québec, to cut down some trees for a small bridge he was building over a stream. Unwittingly, Simoneau’s father chose a tree with a crow’s nest in it. When it fell, the baby birds tumbled out onto the forest floor.
“I remember vividly the sound of when they hit the ground,” Simoneau recalls. “We could hear the cries of the babies. I remember it like it was yesterday.”
Today, the birds’ horrible crying is the only active memory that Simoneau retains of the event, but what happened over the following days would become a defining experience in his life, captured in gorgeous black-and-white photos by his mother, Jeanne d’Arc Fournier. After waiting to see if the birds’ parents would return, Simoneau and his father finally brought them home. The family decided to raise the crows themselves, feeding them pablum and keeping them in their kitchen. For Simoneau and his siblings, the birds became like pets.
Crows are, as scientists put it, “cognitively advanced.” They can interpret our facial expressions, and they’ve been proven to retain memories of individual humans and form special bonds with people. They’ve been known to make and use tools, to trick other animals out of their food, and to solve puzzles. (Ravens, belonging to the same family of corvids, are similarly intelligent.)
But Simoneau never needed a researcher to tell him any of this; he lived it.
“They’re naturally so smart, with us teaching them, they grew to be responsive to us and interactive,” says Simoneau of the experience raising those four baby crows. “We would talk to them and they would respond. They would go out and pick up stuff and bring it back.”
Like all memories from early childhood, Simoneau’s time with the crows quietly faded away, until, nearly 20 years later, he finished his studies in photography and returned home to plan his next steps. One afternoon, he happened to pull out some old family photo albums, of which one stood out from the others. In it, he discovered more than a dozen five-by-seven photographs taken by his mother during that period. Simoneau was struck by their thoughtfulness.
“Everything was considered: the colour and the light and the composition,” he says. “Having studied photography, I realized that these photos were incredible. I understood that my mother’s relationship with photography was not one of necessity but one of passion.”
Meeting and Diverging
Simoneau knew he wanted to create an homage to his mother’s work, but it would be more than a decade before he found the right way to do it. In 2013, after showing his exhibition Love and War at the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, someone suggested he see an exhibit by the acclaimed Japanese photographer Masahisa Fukase (1934–2012).
“I was blown away,” Simoneau recalls of his first encounter with Fukase’s dramatic, high-contrast black-and-white photographs. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.”
Simoneau was carried away by his admiration of Fukase and soon discovered his collection Ravens, considered by some to be the most important book in the history of Japanese photography. Fukase began photographing ravens in 1975, on a train trip to his hometown of Bifuka, Hokkaido, and continued photographing them obsessively for 10 more years—the same period in which, across the world, Jeanne d’Arc Fournier was photographing her children with their four household crows.
The confluence felt miraculous to Simoneau. It offered the perfect frame for a new body of work that would encompass his mother’s photos. In fact, the very same year that Simoneau’s father accidentally knocked down the tree with the crow’s nest in it, Fukase wrote in his diary that he had “become a raven.”
Although Simoneau’s mother and the celebrated postwar Japanese photographer were simultaneously discovering an artistic passion for black birds, their attitudes diverged significantly. Fukase loved ravens because he was fixated on death, reflecting a prevailing darkness in Japan in the decades following the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Fournier’s images, meanwhile, dwell tenderly on the relationships her children formed with the ingenious crows.
To create a dialogue between these two paradigms, Simoneau travelled to Japan to photograph people with unique connections to black birds. He found an elderly gentleman who raised domestic ravens, but fearing stigma, the man refused to be photographed. Simoneau then turned to a restaurant that served raven on its menu, but in the end it didn’t feel right. Finally, after many setbacks, he discovered a falconer who hunted crows and ravens for industrial clients. The falconer consented to be photographed, leading to some of the most startling and memorable images in Murder.
Simoneau now calls Murder an “homage-attack” on Fukase’s Ravens. However stunning the Japanese photographer’s work, Simoneau thinks that Fukase pushed viewers in the wrong direction, deeper into negativity. What Fukase nurtures with his work is too often the narrative we embrace. “The darkness and solitude,” Simoneau says of Ravens. “I wanted to challenge that.”
On one level, he wants his images to undo some of the darkness that humans project onto black birds. “It’s very unfair for humans to have associated crows and ravens with misfortune,” he says. In a broader sense, Simoneau is working on behalf of all of us, not just black birds. “We can’t stay stuck in darkness. We need light in our life.”
Mark Mann is an independent journalist and writer based in Montréal, specializing in narrative long-form essays and reported features, as well as cultural criticism. He is a senior editor at BESIDE magazine, a contributing editor at the art publication Momus, and he produces a newsletter about the innovation economy called Research Money.