Francesca Todde, A Sensitive Education

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Départ Pour l’Image (here). Hardcover (14.8×21 cm), 112 pages, with 96 color photographs. Includes texts by the artist and Luca Reffo. In an edition of 300 copies. Design by Départ Pour l’Image. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: A Sensitive Education by the Italian photographer Francesca Todde immediately grabs your attention with its simple yet striking cover – a cut out silhouette of a man seen from the back, with a black crow standing on his shoulder, placed against a sugar blue background. There is a sense of harmony, mystery, and perhaps even companionship between the man and the bird that starts right with the image on the cover and continues throughout the book. 

A Sensitive Education is Todde’s first publication, the result of three years of intense research and photographic documentation. It tells the story of Tristan Plot, a “bird educator”, and his emotionally rich and complex relationship with animals. Plot trains birds for participation in different human activities, from theater, ballet, and documentary films, to therapy for inmates and people with disabilities. Growing up in the Touraine region of France, with the forest behind his house, Plot noticed that if he stood still long enough, the animals would appear out of the woods. Considering the rhythms of nature became a key element in his approach, deepened by his studies of ecology, biology, and ethology. Plot’s unique methodology is based on “understanding of the sensitivity of birds.”

When she met Plot in Avignon, Todde was already working on a photographic project focused on the relationship between humans and animals. She was fascinated by Plot, his personality, and his sensitive approach to nature. Her photographs capture Plot’s world and his emotional interplay with the birds, and in a way, apply his methodology to her own visual storytelling, as she patiently observed and waited for the right moments to capture gestures and connections normally invisible to the untrained eye.

Todde’s photographs document Plot and the birds in situations that reveal their deep connection and silent relationships. She spent time observing them in his controlled environment, giving us a glimpse into this remarkable and delicate space. The design of the book, its intimate size, and the sequence of images and layout, reinforce the measured experience. The book opens with a sequence of three photographs printed on lighter yellow paper: wooden gates surrounded by trees (marking our entry into this unusual place), followed by a piece of paper with a hand-drawn table with dates, numbers, and names (tracking pigeons), and then an image of Plot sitting on the floor with a barn owl on his arm. This initial sequence invites us to Plot’s world. 

There is a lot of symbolism and visual echoing in Todde’s images, creating a poetic visual narrative. One of the first images is a shot of a cloud in the sky dotted with tiny silhouettes of birds, which is followed by a close up of a red chair and a hand gingerly offering seeds. A few spreads later, we see Plot from the back as he walks carrying a bird cage in the lush green backyard. It is followed by an image of a white stork perplexingly riding in the back of a car, and several spreads later, Plot watches the same white stork outside through the window of the house. As these images pile up, we can start to feel the undeniable connection between the man and bird. 

A number of images show Plot in the garden taking care of birds in their cages, and these pictures are infused with a sense of calm and trust. Often Plot is seen squatting down, seated, or spending time at or below the eye level of the birds, giving up his natural position of dominance. One photograph shows a starling comfortably seated on Plot’s hand; shot against black background, we can see details of its purplish-green iridescent plumage and its yellow beak, like a portrait of an individual. In another image, much of the frame is taken up by Plot on a chair; a small owl stands next to the chair looking up at Plot and its bright yellow feathers stand out in an otherwise dark scene.

At the end of the book, we are officially introduced to all of the birds, “in order of appearance” like a dramatis personae. The white stork is named Mildred, and she considers Plot her own partner and is jealous of all females, no matter the species. Bayo, the crow, knows Plot better than anybody, and over the years they have developed communication close to telepathy. The jackdaw named UB is always very hungry, as he had fallen out of the nest as a young bird; Plot rescued him and then set him free. There are also various other pigeons and swans, as well as a black kite, a starling, and a barn owl, each with their own distinct names and personalities.

The design of the book complements the gracefulness of Todde’s story. Its intimate size is reminiscent of a diary, engaging us even more with the personal side of the narrative. Todde invites us to pause by occasionally, pairing images with colored pages. Another clever design element is the use of shorter, slightly pink pages, to feature family photographs of Plot, adding another intimate layer to his portrait.

This story brings to mind Deep Time by Lynn Alleva Lilley (reviewed here), a photobook different in approach but similar in its intention, as it considers the complexities of horseshoe crabs, ultimately bringing attention to the uniqueness of our planet. A Sensitive Education succeeds because it asks us to reconsider what we think we know about birds, and like Isa Leshko’s portraits of aging farm animals, Todde’s photographs of Plot’s interactions with birds force us to acknowledge that there are lasting and meaningful connections to be made between different species. A Sensitive Education is a call to regain our sensitivity, to find our balance with nature, and to pay closer attention to the world around us. It is a thoughtful and beautifully produced book, that delivers a powerful acclamation of Plot’s vision. 

Collector’s POV: Francesca Todde is represented by Contrasto in Milan (here). Todde’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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