If you think you’ve noticed an emergence of striking photographs of birds adorning the walls of some of Australia’s most fabulous interiors, then you’re certainly not imagining things.
Thanks to Leila Jeffreys, photographs of some of the most wildly captivating feathered creatures have become an absolute lust-have in the world of interiors. With solo exhibitions everywhere from London to New York, a published book and even a window in the iconic Bergdorf Goodman in New York, the world is taking notice. Fuelled by a fascination with the natural world, Leila “sees and senses the lives of birds around her,” and with each piece of work, she immerses herself into the birds’ world. The result? Some of the most enticing photographs you will ever have laid eyes on. Interviewing Leila was an equally marvellous adventure. Deeply passionate about her work but with her feet firmly planted on the ground, she is truly something special. In fact, Dr Sarah Engledow, a Historian at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra said, “Through a unique combination of technical skill, ingenuity, patience and empathy, Leila creates objects of art that are luxurious visual pleasures in themselves. By abstracting her subjects from their accustomed context, she demands focus on form, composition and colour. Stark and warm, objective and celebratory at the same time, her photographs not only enhance our personal surroundings by their own decorative presence, but expand our joyous understanding of the world we inhabit, yes customarily see so incompletely in the short time allowed to us.” We don’t think we could put it any better. So, take it away, Leila.
Can you tell us a little about your childhood?
I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s with an enthusiastic mother and an unconventional dad. My dad loved the outdoors and took our family on many camping, travelling and overseas adventures. Our family car was a kombi which my dad drove well into his seventies. I loved that van and the places we saw. The freedom that I had as a child to roam and explore and play in nature is something that I am so grateful for.
How did you come to photography, and specifically, bird photography?
I always loved photography. I studied it in high school, university and specifically at TAFE. I thought I could try to be a professional photographer but when it came to being a freelancer I was pretty hopeless at it. I found photographing people uncomfortable, I was disappointed by my work and didn’t want to charge people for it so I gave up the idea of making it my career. After some time I picked the camera up again and began taking photos for myself. This is when things changed for me. I didn’t have a client to please and I had complete freedom which allowed me to photograph whatever I was interested in which was birds. I was a bit of a backyard birdwatcher and from there I started to fall more heavily in love with birds.
What did your career entail prior to your photography?
Prior to photography I worked in record shops, I worked in a photo library, I became a photo editor on magazines, I worked in a syndication department and I even did a bit of IT work.
Your images manage to capture the most spectacular personalities of the birds you photograph. What is your process like? How do you build rapport with the birds to capture their gorgeous personalities?
This is hard to answer without writing an essay. In a kind of summary it starts with searching for suitable subjects which are birds that will connect with me or with their carer. For example, wildlife in a rescue centre that is being rehabilitated. Some species are so easy to build a rapport with – pretty much every cockatoo species on the planet are hilarious. Others are more difficult, but if they have a bond with their carer that can enable me to capture their connection.
We know you have photographed the wonderful Penguin Bloom. Have there been any other birds who have remained in your memory? Why?
Penguin Bloom was such a special bird and that experience was so joyful not just because of Penguin but also because of the Blooms who are friends of mine. I have so many birds in my memory as it can sometimes be a very deep and personal experience spending time with different living creatures. A recent experience that was incredible is I photographed a pair of budgerigars for my next major exhibition and they were so into each other that it was incredible. The most beautiful experience seeing them snuggle and kiss.
You have achieved such incredible success - from exhibitions in some of the world’s most prominent galleries, to publishing a book, to being displayed in the windows at Bergdorf Goodman. What has been your greatest highlight?
Bergdorf Goodman windows has been the most thrilling. The windows are 13 feet high, mid town Manhattan. They are the most beautiful windows in all of New York and it was a big moment to have Australian birds taking centre stage there. It was like doing a public art show and I just felt so proud to have Australian birds celebrated like that.
In what part of the world have you come across the most fascinating birds?
This is impossible to answer really. Australia is known for our marsupials but our birdlife is incredible; visitors often rave about the birdlife here but to Australians, they are just a part of daily life. Then you fly to New Zealand and suddenly you have an entire country that was dominated by birds and they have evolved in such a unique and fascinating way, then off to Papua New Guinea where you have iridescent Birds of Paradise dancing like strange alien creatures…I could go on. I think the point is that birds have spread all around the globe, each has evolved in their own unique way and they are all fascinating.
As a mother, how do you manage the ‘juggle’ of balancing motherhood with your demanding career?
It’s tough! The process of working as an artist is intense and consuming but to me nothing is more important than family and teaching my son about life. I am in the fortunate position that my husband helps a great deal behind the scenes – from paperwork to family work – which then frees me up for art. I try to travel with my husband and son if I can afford to do so. I feel like the experiences I am privileged are sweeter when shared with them. We visited Iceland last year because I was photographing rescued puffins and it was a happy and special time for us all.
Have you discovered any similarities between photographing children (your son) and photographing birds?!
They are both so frustrating sometimes! You see a beautiful moment that you know would make the most incredible portrait but they don’t hold the pose long enough and missing the magic kills you. Then sometimes you get lucky and the thrill is amazing.
What's next for you?
I have a major exhibition in Sydney at Olsen Gallery Gallery in October 2019 and that then travels to New York in November at Olsen Gruin. I am also in early discussions on my next series as well as completing ongoing series which will require more travel around the world. I have so many ideas but I self fund everything I do so I have to be patient and plan carefully.