Review of Silent Nests by Steve Woodall, Artistic Director for San Francisco Center for the Book


Sometimes an outsider, unencumbered, can capture the truth of a place or a thing in a way that natives or academic historians can’t. Vicki Topaz is neither an architectural historian nor a social historian, nor is she a native of France. Silent Nests, her book of photos of pigeonniers in Normandy and Brittany, is a document of another order, a poetic document that evokes the mysterious power of the past with a kind of depth and resonance that comes only from the profound sympathies of art.

Atget captured a France that was disappearing, and offered us a heartbreakingly poignant look at what we were losing. Topaz’ photos, while much in the photographic style of Atget, take us back further yet, to a time not disappearing but long gone. Some poignancy may remain here, but it is largely replaced with a sense of wonder and respect for the unknown in our midst. The culture that built these structures, as alien to us now as the ziggurats of Nineveh, created them in the service of a kind of high-tech animal husbandry – as homes and way-stations for highly trained avians.

In the history of communication, messenger pigeons were precursors of the telegraph and even the internet – pigeonniers were in this sense modems for text messaging, and of great social and political import in their historic context. Keeping pigeons was akin to owning a telescope, or a great personal library

Somehow these photos manage to capture all of that in a way that cuts directly to the heart of it, something no clinical history of the domestication of pigeons, no matter how thorough, could achieve. It is a measure of the power of her art and the deep sensibility behind it that Vicki Topaz can deliver to us not only an image of the presence of the past, but an ineffably immediate experience of it as well.

~Steve Woodall 

Review in Umbrella, vol. 31, no. 1 (March 2008) by Judith Hoffberg

Silent Nests by Vicki Topaz (San Francisco, 2007, $750.00 hardcover) is a meditation on the slow demise of the pigeonniers in Normandy and Brittany, stone structures which were built in service as homes and way-stations for highly trained birds. Their isolation on the landscape as well as their now way-stations without a reason to be allows the artist to find a poetry in their isolation. Topaz becomes a poet with the camera, reminiscing about the mystery of the past, another era, another reason for thinking about the birds and man.

Just imagine how the messengers working for the Pony Express would be refreshed when they got to a Saloon, or a hotel to rest before hurrying on with their important mail. So too the French felt that messenger pigeons in their important role needed to refresh and renew. And the artist, Vicki Topaz, captures the poetry of this all. Not an industrial manual would do it. But her nostalgic eye captures the experience of the structures as well as their precious raison d’être. The pigeonniers contain the “sweetness of their former occupants, of the characteristics of these birds–their gentleness, loyalty, nesting and social instincts, and ability to hone in on home.”

Using a traditional black and white process associated with the rich palette of grays in silver printing, Topaz captures the “far west” light of the area. High contrast shade and sun makes for a feeling of the volume of these structures made by men for birds. And these are not documents of architecture, but visual experiences of deep emotions for the past, a resonance of emotions including nostalgia for the past, for ruins, for hope.

~Judith Hoffberg


Page last update: 04.04.08


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