Paul the Birdman of Washington Square Park, a NYC Portrait / by Jason Joseph

Paul and His Animal Kingdom Friends at Home in Washington Square Park, NYC

Paul the Birdman of Washington Square Park is a very well known figure in NYC. For me though, meeting him no less photographing him, was as unplanned a photograph as I could possibly make...yet to look at it you'd think all the 'subjects' in the frame were given direction in advance.

The day I made this photograph, I didn't load up my camera and head out the door with the intention that I normally do to make photographs. Well....I did, in a manner of speaking....it just wans't to make this photograph! In fact I'd never seen, nor heard of Paul before.

I was actually out on an assignment to photograph a rather eclectic family from Boston. A wonderfully colorful bunch. And wonderfully understanding when upon discovering the sight that is Paul and his feathered friends, and expressing that this was a new NYC sight for my native eyes... and one that (mistakenly) I wasn't sure Id have another opportunity to photograph. Id like just 3 minutes to attempt a proper portrait with him. They gleefully insisted that indeed I should.

So, after instructing my assistant how I'd like the light placed (we were shooting with a speedlight on an extension pole and firing it through an umbrella) should he agree. I then approached him and told him I'd like to make an image of him but that I'd like to light him, and that I'd like him to look amazing and I wouldn't be happy if he didn't so if he would agree to work with me, I would promise that he would indeed look amazing. He agreed, he waved everyone else off who'd been taking photos, feeding the birds, or just plain gawking...and he sat and readied himself.
I knew I wanted him to look as he had initially struck me.. special, important. To these animals he was important. There was a bond. I had no idea.the extent of it, or anything much about him other than the moment I saw him he was literally covered in birds.. and it seemed to me as rather special. I couldn't explain it. In fact the only way I can explain it is with this photograph. You see, as Id come to learn latter.. most every image of Paul with these birds....is one of chaos. Birds everywhere. No real thought of the subject... always just a fascination with capturing the birds. I took a deep breath and I said my usual prayers of intention as I readied the camera, I was wishing that this man and these animals would allow me to show them and the relationship they have in a manner that held the beauty that took my breath away when I'd stumbled upon them just moments prior.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle. Pandemonium took a time out, and miraculously...all of his friends lined up as if to have their photo taken. I think I took roughly three images, and this scene came together and as quickly as it had formed, yet not till I knew Id had it...reverted back to a wild frenzy of feathers and feed. I felt, and still do feel, every time I look at this image...that my intention to make an image that showed the respect I had for both man and animal...is what allowed me to have this incredibly special image. To this day I've yet to see a more human image of this man and his fowl friends. And I am so grateful that I was the one present for the creation of it.
You can read Paul's story in a wonderful piece done on him in Gothamist here: Meet The Birdman Of Washington Square Park