My dad Colin and his older brother John spent much of their spare time as young boys in the 1950s walking in the South Australian bush collecting sticks, looking for snakes and generally making menace, including stealing eggs from birds’ nests. By their teenage years, they’d amassed an impressive collection of eggs. The shells were a dazzling array of colors and patterns, none more so than the crows’ eggs, which ranged from sky blue to operating-theater-sheet green, sometimes marked with brown or grey speckles. The brothers would take it in turns to scale tall eucalypts and other trees, occasionally falling out of them, carrying the eggs in their mouths, tasting their sour rawness by accident.
Crows were among the boys’ favorite birds, “because they have attitude,” Dad explains when I call him to talk about his lifelong love of birds. “The crow judges you but cares not for you.”
I remember spotting crows during the almost hour-long bus journey to school each day from our remote dairy farm. Usually the crows would be devouring roadkill, such as rabbits and kangaroos, hopping and skipping to avoid the occasional vehicle. Sometimes they too became roadkill, though I don’t recall any creature feasting on their carcasses.
These memories bubble to the surface, as I turn the first few pages of Guillaume Simoneau’s book Murder. I spend a lot of time with the first eleven images. The book starts with a photograph of what appears to be an architectural structure, like the tower of a powerline. The photographer is looking up, but I get the feeling both the photographer and the tower are looking beyond, higher and higher, to where even birds are out of sight. Following this first image is a scene bathed in the kind of light we photographers dream about yet rarely find. It is so beautiful it almost defies the Golden Hour. But the scene also suggests the Witching Hour. It is a murder scene. Or is it? We look down at dead chicks lying in pieces in the mud. We are close, perhaps too close. Who is the culprit? Whodunit?
Does the next photograph, a black and white image where we’re once again looking up, far into the sky, through an opening left by the edges of the tree canopy, show the assassins? Or are they hiding behind the unsettling-looking tree in the next image?
Perhaps our killer is the spider, who is the next character to appear in the story. The spider is small but capable of inflicting pain. It sits atop an ‘X’, a shape that its legs also make. Is this the X that marks the spot? Am I seeing clues or a sequence of images that incorporate the X shape, where X is the unknown, the mysterious? Somehow it is a more than a shape or a mark, it is a warning. Maybe the spider saw something, as in Charlotte’s Web, but is unable to guide us toward the truth.
And then comes the crow. It is an almost full-page black and white portrait. A side profile. It is a magnificent creature. So deep and velvety are the blacks in the image that we cannot see the crow’s eyes. It could be engaged in surveillance. It could be at rest. It is so still it looks almost like taxidermy.
What follows is a beautiful meander through a story, a memory, between human and bird, between walking the land and circling the air, between what sits above us and upon what we tread. It reads as a visual tribute to a friendship – between a boy and the baby crows he adopts after they fall from the nest – that is as wild as it is precious. It also reads as a spectacle of contemporary times.
Though the entire book is captivating, in addition to the opening, one of the most striking sequences of images is toward the end: three color photographs where an older man appears to be crouching down at the back of a garden, behind a shed. It’s the type of location where one might bury their pet. Is he kneeling to look over the grave of the crows? Is he clearing away the weeds so that the gravesite is once again visible and tidy? Or is this the location where the baby crows were found years ago?
It occurs to me that this is also in part a lyrical story about how children learn about death; what happens when, as children, we learn to parent; and how we discover the realities of loss. Often our first experience of loss is that of a pet.
After revisiting the book from start to finish several times, I begin to wonder if we ever witness a murder or a murderer. The crow is often blamed when things go wrong; it is after all a sign of death. But perhaps it is the owl, or death itself, that is the real felon here. Or is my imagination running wild? This is what makes Murder so enticing. I can cast my own theories, and each seems more or less plausible. The images at once imply and predict. There is room to believe that Murder could be about how we twist the facts to suit our own delicious wishes and preferences.
The most plausible for me is that Murder is not only a beautiful homage to Masahisa Fukase’s photobook Karasu (Ravens), it also pays tribute to improbable but real love; to the axis between light and darkness, aggression and meekness, and despair and optimism. It reminds us that love and loss come in all forms, and that tenderness, rather than cruelty, can be wondrous and aching.