AIRLINES · Bird Tracks in the Air

Who hasn’t secretly wished they could glide through the air like a bird? Mostly, all we can do though is marvel at the elegance of the eagle’s flight or the daring acrobatics of swifts racing through the skies.

A complex video and photo-technical process involving thousands of single images has now made it possible to portray the beauty of these bird tracks in the air.

In contrast to the word photography which literally means “writing with light”, I would like to call this new process iskiography – “writing with shadow”.

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AIRLINES XI-1 · Vier Mäusebussarde · Betberg · Markgräflerland · 2011AIRLINES XI-1 · Vier Mäusebussarde · Betberg · Markgräflerland · 2011, Making-of Video

AIRLINES XIV-9 · Möwen vor der Silhouette von Korsika · Pomonte · Elba · 2014AIRLINES XIV-9 · Möwen vor der Silhouette von Korsika · Pomonte · Elba · 2014

AIRLINES XVII-1 · Schwarzmilane · Raderach · Bodensee · 2017AIRLINES XVII-1 · Schwarzmilane · Raderach · Bodensee · 2017

AIRLINES XV-25 · Kraniche · Kinnbackenhagen · Ostsee · 2015 AIRLINES XV-25 · Kraniche · Kinnbackenhagen · Ostsee · 2015

AIRLINES XV-20 · Mauersegler · Rostock · 2015 AIRLINES XV-20 · Mauersegler · Rostock · 2015

AIRLINES XIII-3 · Adler am Südrand der Pyrenäen · Santuari de Lord · Katalonien · 2013 AIRLINES XIII-3 · Adler am Südrand der Pyrenäen · Santuari de Lord · Katalonien · 2013

Iskiography – the opposite of photography

When we hear language or music, we naturally accept that it is only possible for us to experience it as something transitory – a fleeting moment in time. When we view a landscape or a photograph, however, we are of the impression that time has somehow stood still. It is only when a leaf falls from a tree or a bird flies by that we come to realize that everything does actually change – and must change. Without constant movement, without time, our material world cannot exist.

Back in the days of analog photography, I once watched a swarm of flies performing their morning ballet in front of a window. The bobbing movements of the black dots blurred into a tangled ball of twisted lines as I observed them. I would have loved to have been able to capture these dance moves on film with a long exposure. The black dots, however, would have been quickly absorbed by the light from the window. I had a similar experience watching a buzzard or an eagle circling when I was out hiking, or watching the swifts in town, wheeling and darting through the air.

Light traces in the dark inspired pioneers of photography as early as the nineteenth century to create fascinating photographs – even more so after the spread of electric lighting. In my project – “NACHTZUG – Spuren der Raumzeit“ (“Night Train – Traces of Spacetime”) – I added an extra timeline to the images shot from moving vehicles by winding on the film during exposure time.

From a photo-technical point-of-view, it is not possible to photograph longer movements of dark objects against a light background. In order to be able to do so, you need the opposite of photography, i.e. iskiography, as I would like to call it.
(Photography= writing with light; iskiography = writing with shadow. (Greek: ίσκιος / iskios = shadow)

Countless attempts with analog photo cameras and 16mm-film equipment failed to produce any satisfactory results. It was only when modern digital photography and video technology – in combination with special software components – provided the appropriate tools that I was finally able to achieve my goal. Now these same tools enable me to put together – automatically – thousands of frames from selected video sequences to draw a single motion track. A bird’s flight, for example, can now be accurately captured in a motion track – like the contrail of a plane.

Just as our experience of the beauty of music is only transitory, so too is our perception of the beauty of an eagle’s flight. For us it is only a fleeting moment – a moment of emergence and transience. Musical scores are the written compositions of melodies which musicians, at least, are able to read at a glance. The process of iskiography has created another kind of score… quasi a visual score for the flight tracks of birds.

Adler eagle
Alpendohle alpine chough
Basstölpel northern gannet
Bussard buzzard
Dohle daw, jackdaw
Gleitschirm paraglider
Kondensstreifen condensation trail, contrail
Kranich crane
Mäusebussard common buzzard
Mauersegler swift
Mehlschwalbe house martin
Möwe seagull
Rheinfliegen a particular species of mayflies
Rotmilan red kite
Schwalbe swallow

Idea and realisation: Lothar Schiffler
Technical assistance: Nikolai Klassen
Editing: Marion Engels
Translation: Siân Willliams-Hahn

Making-of AIRLINES XI-1

The video visualizes the emergence of the flight trajectories of four buzzards, gliding above vineyards on the slopes of the Black Forest in the south west of Germany. The image created from this video from autumn 2011 is the very first iskiography for the project.

It is not always easy to find a suitable viewpoint for the camera. For AIRLINES XI-1 it was simply laid down on the road between the vineyards.

Guided tour through the AIRLINES exhibition

In this video, journalist Andrea Mall guides us through the AIRLINES exhibition at the Wurzacher Ried Nature Conservation Centre in spring 2021. Lothar Schiffler and Nikolai Klassen explain phototechnical, art-historical and ornithological aspects of the AIRLINES project.

The video is in German language with English subtitles.

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