‘Audubon’ documentary screening features IU professor Christoph Irmscher

Post by Karen Land and IU newsroom intern Tori Lawhorn:

John James Audubon, a godfather of today’s conservation movement, is the subject of a new documentary coming to Bloomington in a special one-night event Thursday.


The documentary film “Audubon” will be shown Dec. 10 only at AMC Showplace College Mall.

Audubon” recounts the life and accomplishments of the man who set out to paint all 435 species of the birds known in early 19th-century America. His ambitious journey, much of it undertaken on foot, brought him all over the country from the Florida Keys to the Dakotas.

The 2014 film had its national debut in March at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, D.C., under its original title, “Rara Avis: John James Audubon and the Birds of America.”

Indiana University Bloomington English professor Christoph Irmscher served as an academic consultant for “Audubon.” He is the George F. Getz Professor in the Wells Scholars Program and the editor of a 1999 volume of Audubon’s writings and drawings.

Irmscher also is interviewed on screen in the film, which was directed by “Apollo 13” screenwriter Al Reinert.

“It was an exhilarating experience to work with Al Reinert on this film. He has made Audubon’s images come alive again,” Irmscher said.

“I have studied Audubon for two decades now, but being interviewed by Al white sitting on a cold, hard rock in Henderson, Kentucky, in the same woods Audubon once scoured for birds, is perhaps the closest I have ever come to understanding what is art is all about.”

Special screening and discussion

“Audubon” will be screened at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 10 at AMC Showplace College Mall. Tickets, at $10 each, are now sold out on the film’s web site, however several pairs of tickets to the screening will be given away in a contest on the film’s Facebook page. Tickets will not be sold at the theater on the day of the show.

Following the AMC screening, Irmscher and Distinguished Professor Emeritus Scott Russell Sanders will answer questions about Audubon’s life and the film. Geoff Conrad, former director of the Mathers Museum of World Cultures and the vice president of Sassafras Audubon Society, will serve as moderator.

The Audubon legacy

The legacy of Audubon remains as timeless and vital as his art.

Christoph Irmscher

IU English professor Christoph Irmscher appears in “Audubon.”

“The scope and intensity of his writing makes Audubon unlike any of his contemporaries,” Irmscher said in an interview with the non-profit publisher Library of America. “No one had traveled quite as extensively, no one had seen quite as much, and no one was equally talented as a writer and as a visual artist…”

Irmscher said Audubon put his own philosophies into each piece of his work.

“Audubon encourages us not to think of ourselves as central to nature,” he said.

“While he keeps himself out of his paintings, except as a kind of implied observer, Audubon is always present in his texts, as a feeling, thinking individual. However, the final purpose of this self-representation in the texts is the same as in the paintings — to question the importance of the human observer to a natural world that seems to function perfectly well on its own.”

Audubon’s writings are not only about birds but about mankind itself, Irmscher said.

He points out a favorite example, Audubon’s biography of the hummingbird: “Audubon here describes the horror felt by the hummingbird parents when the human observer approaches the nest of a newly hatched pair of young birds, ‘little larger than humble-bees, naked, blind, and so feeble as scarcely to be able to raise their little bill to receive food from the parents.’ He compares their pain to that experienced by a mother who has lost, or might lose, her child. But Audubon’s point is not to make us understand the birds better. It is, quite bluntly, to make us go away, to leave the birds alone. We are where we shouldn’t be.”

To learn more

Print of Audubon

In this print, Alonzo Chappel depicted a gun-toting John James Audubon. Courtesy of the Lilly Library.

Reinert and Irmscher will appear at 6 p.m. tonight on Doug Storm’s radio program “Interchange” on WFHB, which is broadcast at 91.3 FM in South Central Indiana, 98.1 FM in downtown Bloomington, 100.7 FM in Nashville and 106.3 FM in Ellettsville.

Locally, Audubon’s work is on continuous display in the main gallery of IU’s Lilly Library. The double elephant folio first edition of “Birds of America” is one of the most distinguished treasures in the Lilly Library collection. The Audubon print series, first published in sections between 1827 and 1838, includes six images of birds that are now extinct, including the passenger pigeon.

At the Lilly Library, pages are turned regularly to protect the volumes and display different birds. To see all of the different “Birds of America,” people can visit the National Audubon Society website.

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