Tucked towards the southern tip of Lake Michigan in South Chicago lies a strip of parkland and shore called Rainbow Beach, known for one of the most striking views to be found of the city skyline. Asphalt paths weave past tennis and basketball courts, and if you head south to the curved tip towards the Eugene Sawyer Water Purification Plant, the paved walkway becomes sand and scrub; thereafter lies the protected 9-acre habitat of the Rainbow Beach Dunes.
Here, one day in September 2021, Owen Deutsch steadied his Nikon D850 and focused on a small olive-green headed bird perched on a thin grey branch. In the resulting photograph, its black and white wings and tail are offset beautifully by the muted pale peach and tea-green background. Yellow face markings are just visible as it turns its head, as if sensing the man behind, intent on his subject.
Meet Owen Deutsch
The Black-throated Green Warbler is just one of 325 bird species who will pass this way at some point during migration. The Great Lakes lie along the northern reaches of the Mississippi Flyway, a bird migration route stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to Hudson Bay, Canada. The Chicago area is an absolute haven for birdwatchers, and for Owen Deutsch, there is no finer place to base himself for his passion for bird photography.
Deutsch is a Chicago native, born, raised, and educated in Illinois. He is a man who knows what he likes, but is the first to concede his introduction to the world of higher education was a little baffling at the beginning.
"I went to college, but I wasn’t a great student. I took a general liberal arts course for two years at the University of Illinois, Champaign, and then they said I had to declare a major. A major! I didn’t know what to do; I thought, I don’t want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer! I like beauty. I liked design and I loved photography. It has been my hobby for years. But they didn’t have a curriculum in photography at Illinois. They did at IIT [Illinois Institute of Technology], a great one, that was a part of the Institute of Design. My instructor suggested I get a job as a photo assistant, and I got one at a large commercial studio and went to night school at the ID. I became very interested in the work of Victor Skrebneski, an extremely talented fashion photographer in Chicago. I contacted him hoping he would take a look at my portfolio and he hired me."
From assistant to CEO
From 1962, Deutsch spent four years working for Skrebneski who he remembers as "a wonderful and caring person, it was a wonderful time, we had a lot of fun" and is visibly sad as he recounts that Victor died in April 2020.
"I wanted to be indispensable to him. I knew he would be a great teacher for me and I wanted to be a valuable employee. I watched everything he did and learned a great deal from him, not only about photography, but about fashion and glamour."
Deutsch also watched other photographers spend all the money from one shoot on the next, never getting anywhere financially. That was not going to happen to him. He had always planned to start his own business and he saved his money and lived in a small apartment on Chicago’s Gold Coast. Within a couple of years he was able to buy his own building and install his own state-of-the-art photo studio. It was a “gut rehab”, his first foray into real estate development that would eventually dominate the next stage of his life. His own boss now, he hired his own stylist and assistant so that when he wasn’t on shoots for Chicago’s fashionable department stores like Marshall Field’s, he’d focus on real estate.
In 1978 he co-founded Loft Development Corp., all while still active as a commercial fashion photographer. But the allure of fashion started to wane for him. “The fun just began to slip away”, Deutsch recalls, so in 1986, Loft Development Corp. became a full-time venture.
Photography is Deutsch’s golden thread, and the glitzy glamor of the models was replaced by the stunning solidity of buildings. Deutsch firmly believes that photography and graphic design “have a way to connect people to whatever you want them to see, be it human beauty, or buildings… I always had my cameras”.
After 20 years in real estate, he was eager to embrace a new passion: he wasn’t sure what, but it needed to be something he could really care about, then along came bird photography.
The story of how he became a bird photographer has been well documented: a birder friend asked for technical advice on some photos he’d taken, and whilst the photos themselves weren’t exactly top-dollar, the subject matter couldn’t fail to bring joy to Deutsch’s senses. “Birds are beautiful, just beautiful!” he declares. All that physical and aesthetic beauty from his younger days was suddenly there again, except this time the “six-foot-tall models were now two-inch-tall birds!” He’d never considered birds before other than he liked hearing their calls, and whilst he says that his current pastime now must make him technically a birder, he confesses he can’t consider himself a very knowledgeable one. He states, he always needs to travel with a guide.
This photo of the warbler is one of many that features in his review of 2021 in the blog section of his excellent website, Owen Deutsch Photography. The site is a slick, beautiful compendious resource of startling bird imagery and bursting with facts, photography tips, and information about all of the species Deutsch has photographed since his conversion to bird photography in 2002. This is exactly what Deutsch wants and thinks his website (and others) should be, a one-stop-shop; there are bird call recordings, species descriptions, classification, insight into the mechanisms behind the photos, choice of background, and history of the sites he goes to. The search function is outstanding, allowing you to look at each part of the globe Deutsch has visited since liquidating his real estate business to fund the travel. He has been to five continents and 23 countries, and has logged upwards of 2,500 bird species since the beginning of this chapter of his life. For someone who came this late to birding, and who claims to know relatively little about his subjects, that is an impressive list.
As with his attitude to everything, Owen Deutsch finds out as much as he can, and recognising his limitations to learn everything about birds, he enlists the help of several equally dedicated and passionate individuals, including his son, Christopher and birders such as Nathan Goldberg from Chicago-based Red Hill Birding. Under diligent direction from Deutsch, Nathan, a couple of assistants and other contributors write the blog entries and fill up the site with the details. Conceding he is not a writer, Deutsch is modest enough to admit he can’t take full credit for the site’s content, but he still knows what he wants to say, and believes others have learnt how to hear his voice and convey his meaning.
There is more to Deutsch’s intent than just taking a photo of a bird; the photos tell one side of the story, the beauty, the light, the shadows, the wonder; but alongside all of that stunning physicality, there is the all-pervading awareness that things are far from perfect in the world of birds. Perhaps it is by design or just a happy coincidence, but the “next photo” arrow on any species page on the site also happens to be pointing directly at the conservation status of that species. Deutsch knew that he wanted to help people connect with nature through his photography, that this was a perfect opportunity to help people understand the essential place these immaculate beings have in the world, ours and theirs, and how birds are the ultimate indicators of a healthy environment.
In a bid to help as many people as possible to learn more about the plight of the world’s birds, in 2019 Deutsch released a book with The American Bird Conservancy (ABC) called Bringing Back the Birds: Exploring Migration and Preserving Birdscapes throughout the Americas. It features 225 of his images accompanied by essays from notable authors such as John Fitzpatrick, Jonathan Franzen, and Peter Marra. There is an opening poem from Margaret Atwood called Fatal Light Awareness, which is a short sharp reminder of the damage we can do to bird populations by not taking simple steps to prevent bird collisions into our windows, our “magician’s illusion of trees”. It is a stunning and prescient book.
“I wanted to feel like I was doing something to help birding and conservation. I remember when I was six years old, and my parents took me to the coal mine exhibit in the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. We were all sitting in a dark room, and there was a bird in a cage. Then all of a sudden, there’s an explosion and a flash. And that was how they illustrated that when there’s too much gas, the bird dies. We need the world to hear that same message today, but even louder. We are destroying our environment. We have lost over 3 billion birds already and we are losing millions more. This loss of our avian populations is a warning, the tip of the iceberg. We are not just endangering birds but every living thing and creature on our planet...”
I mention that more often than not, the very nature of people who care about birds tend to already be conservation-minded, and does he ever feel like he might be singing to the choir?
“Once when I was out birding near my home, a woman did recognise me. She said that she had seen something about me in the local news, and she’d looked at my website, and thought the photos were wonderful. She’d never thought about the birds much before that, she said. And there she was, also out birding. And if she then tells someone else, and they learn, and so on, I think it happens, it matters. The good news is there are enough people in the world that care. But, there still are too many people in the world that don’t.”
Despite this acknowledgement of the imbalance in the world, Deutsch is keen to emphasise that amazing things can still happen. His website has a section on the lodges and birding sites he has visited, and it is an exhaustive list. The thing that strikes me most isn’t about whether there’s a whirlpool bath, or balcony views: Deutsch’s website explains each lodge’s approach to conservation and giving back to the community and the world, either through local employment or contributing any profit made to conserving the delicate and pristine environment that is primarily the bird’s home. These are Deutsch’s core values as well, and his researchers have done an excellent job in finding those places that reflect what he cares about and wants others to care about.
He recounts the time he visited one called Sacha Lodge in Ecuador along the Rio Napo, and the tribespeople there who still run the lodge told him about when they had been offered an obscene amount of money by a mining company for their land: but they said no.
“They could have been overnight millionaires but they didn’t care about that, they cared about enjoying life in the lodge, and the nature that helped to bring people in. They chose that kind of a life instead, and it was so wonderful to see that and there’s a lot of that going on around the world.”
All about the image
I next ask a question I immediately know to be redundant as soon as I’ve said it – does he have a favorite bird or one he would love to see but hasn’t yet? Deutsch is politely accommodating and direct.
“I could show you, easy, 100 birds I’ve photographed that I could call my favorite, maybe a thousand. What I could pinpoint though are my favorite photos. It’s not just the bird itself, it’s the background, it’s the lighting, the composition. I remember years ago when I shot my first painted bunting, and it’s a beautiful bird, but it wouldn’t be my favorite picture. It could be a plain little brown bird, like this one, that people would rarely notice, but at the right angle and with a background that is soft and lovely, the shot can be a beauty. At a low angle, I’m right in his little face. And it feels very intimate and close. I’d rather talk about those, that’s what I’m passionate about.
I can tell you one bird I don’t have a good picture of that I would love to shoot and that’s a snowy owl. Those are beautiful birds!”
I can’t let the conversation go by without bringing up the subject of Fox Lake and "That Photograph". Some time ago, Deutsch was invited out to Fox Lake, IL, by an electrician that was doing some work on his house who knew that Deutsch was into bird photography. There were bald eagles nesting nearby, so the two went out in a boat and Deutsch stood legs astride in the bow with his tripod and camera set up, feeling like a machine gunner. About 150 yards from the nest, a great blue heron came flying right over. Mobbing behavior to protect nests is well known, and by instinct the bald eagle shot up into the sky and chased away the heron. Deutsch managed to capture this 10 second dogfight on camera. Going back through the shots he was overjoyed to see he had taken one that showed the birds in perfect symmetry. The image was verified and named a North American Nature Photography Association’s 2011 Top 10 Showcase Winner. Two years later, however, controversy lurked on the horizon when Deutsch entered the photograph into an Audubon magazine photo competition in 2013.
“The directions said that you have to send the RAW file to prove its accuracy, which I did, but I was away somewhere in South America [at the time of the entry]. They tried to reach me; I didn’t answer”.
Unable to double-check (which shouldn’t really need checking as they already had the RAW image file), the person who was in charge of content at the time went ahead anyway and allocated the image to the “digital manipulation gallery”. No explanation was given as to why it was there, which led many to believe it had been tampered with.
“Look, I get it, it looks Photoshopped I guess, the clear sky, and the two birds together like that and I don’t blame him for thinking that, but he was a little careless in what he did.” Audubon issued an apology, but by that time, the image had “gone viral” with hundreds of commenters continuing to doubt its veracity on social media, despite the formal apology and confirmation the image was real. Deutsch is magnanimous; he knew it was real, after all, and the discussion at least got him and the photo more exposure, and people talking about birds.
Before we part, I ask about plans for further travel in the “post-pandemic” era, and whether, given that it’s been over 20 years since Deutsch first turned his attention to the birds, was this a phase that could be on the wane?
When coronavirus came along, of course, international travel went on hold, and just before it all kicked off, he had planned to go to Africa with another friend, the award-winning photographer Nelis Wolmarans. The sudden global malaise could have scuppered all enthusiasm for making any plans, but not for Deutsch, and eventually, optimism about Omicron soon being in check finally paid off. In March this year, 2022, he and Nathan managed an ambitious trip to four main Hawaiian islands, including Oahu, Kaua’i, Big Island and Maui. You can see all the beautiful birds of Hawaii on the website here. The Africa trip will no doubt soon be back on the cards.
Along with Deutsch’s confirmation that there is another book in the offing, this ability to travel again is welcome news and a promising sign. Photography means everything to Deutsch and he is eager to see more birds, more of the world, and help as many people as possible understand they need us.