Illustrated birds in green, yellow, and orange, perched on tree branches

John James Audubon (1785–1851)
The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon
London: Pub. by the author, 1827–1838
Rare Book Division

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The Birds of America; from original drawings by John James Audubon

Transcript below

Anna Deavere Smith: Perhaps the first thing you’ll notice about John James Audubon’s Birds of America is: It’s big. Really big. Curator of Rare Books Michael Inman:

Michael Inman: That is the largest book in The New York Public Library, and certainly one of the largest books ever printed.

But I think it's important to not be overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. And to really sort of pause and take in the fine details.

I'm certainly drawn to, as many people are, the very large images. But more recently I've actually been drawn towards some of the smaller-scale drawings. The smaller birds, which maybe at first pass aren't quite as striking, but certainly invite a lot of scrutiny and contain a great deal of detail.

Anna Deavere Smith: The size of Audubon’s tome is matched by the massive scope of his effort. Audubon sought to depict every single bird species in North America.

Michael Inman: He endeavored to depict all of the birds life-sized. That's why the volume is so large.

When he identified a bird that he had not yet depicted, he would shoot the bird, and then, he rigged an armature that would depict the bird in a lifelike pose. The fact that his birds were depicted in a lifelike way was what really set his work apart from that of his predecessors.

End of Transcript

Michael Inman is Curator of Rare Books at The New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building.

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