Social Media

Photographer's Showcase: Golden Eagle Nomads by John Delaney

Eagle Hunter #9, 2008 -- John Delaney

We are pleased to welcome back John Delaney and his Golden Eagle Nomads portfolio to the Photographer's Showcase. The stunning silver-gelatin images have been resonating with audiences since they were first exhibited in 2008, winning the Luicie Award 'Discovery of the Year.' Practitioners of an ancient tradition, Delaney's photographs document the symbiotic relationship between the nomadic Kazakh eagle handlers and their powerful hunting companions. The juxtaposition between man and animal is striking, as is the apparent bond between them. We asked Delaney to tell us a more about how the project came to be, his background as a photographic printer, and what he's up to now.

Sarah Bradley:     Golden Eagle Nomads is a breathtaking group of images. Where did you first learn about the nomads and how did the project come to be?

Adashkhan, 1998 -- John Delaney
John Delaney:     The Golden Eagle Nomads project started on a late night in the spring of 1998 when I caught part cable TV nature documentary about Mongolia. The show briefly touched on the Golden eagles of the Kazakh nomads.

I was just coming off a long and intense printing job for Richard Avedon’s The Sixties book and was looking for a personal project that would get me as far away from my NYC darkroom as possible.

The Golden Eagle Nomads immediately fired my imagination and after some research I was off and running. This pocket of Kazakh nomadic traditions was still relatively unknown to the West and certainly hadn’t been documented in the fashion I envisioned.

After arranging for a guide, an interpreter, and a Russian Jeep, I designed and built a portable daylight studio, dusted off my view camera and set out for the far reaches of western Mongolia. I spent about 2 1⁄2 weeks bouncing around the countryside, living with Kazakh families, and making portraits. It was a great adventure!

The project then sat in my closet until I returned again in 2008 to continue shooting. Later that year I received the Lucie Award “Discovery of the Year” for the work, which then lead to an exhibit in Brooklyn, and a number exhibitions in Europe. At some point I would still like to publish a beautiful little book of the images.

Son of Yuton - White Coat, 2008 and Nomad Girl w/ Falcon, 2008 by John Delaney

SB:     Aside from the pure visual power of the Kazakh people and their birds, what drew you to make this project? How did the Kazakhs react to your interest?

JD:     One of my all time favorite photography books is Irving Penn’s World in a Small Room. Penn’s method of taking a portable studio out into the far reaches of the world to create his beautiful and iconic portraits intrigued me. This project immediately seemed to be the perfect opportunity to experiment with this myself.

Telegen and Son, 1998 -- John Delaney
The Kazakh nomads themselves seemed otherworldly to me. They harkened back to a “romantic” past that I was shocked still existed. The nomads capture, raise and train Golden eagles. They then ride out on horseback into the mountains with the eagles perched on their arms ready to hunt. They’ve been doing this for centuries but unfortunately the tradition is rapidly disappearing. I jumped at the opportunity to document this while it still remained.

The Kazakhs themselves are a tough and proud people but I also found them very trusting and warm. They embraced and welcomed me as well as the project.

Generally once I found a group of nomadic eagle families I would stay with them for a few days. The shots became a local event. They would help set up the studio and even assist with light meter readings and handing me film.

I actually left behind far, far more family portraits for them then I what took home. During the first trip I handed out 4x5 Polaroid portraits for the families. On the second trip I brought a mini digital printer and had families coming from miles around to have their portraits taken.

SB:     You shoot on a large format wooden view camera. Did the equipment prove difficult when making this project? What challenges did you confront while shooting?

JD:     My biggest challenge was getting my equipment and film there and back again without being destroyed. I traveled by myself and that was hard. Once there it was relatively easy, like I said I had plenty of local help. While I shoot with both medium and large format, I really love the process of shooting with a view camera so that was a joy.

I’d have to say the wind was my greatest foe while there. The storms and winds in this part of Mongolia are legendary. Our camp was actually completely wiped out one night during a sand storm. My studio was always in peril of becoming airborne if the wind suddenly picked up.

John Delaney photographing in Mongolia and his mobil studio

SB:     You have a very interesting background in photography, having worked closely with Richard Avedon and worked as a printer for a number of other highly accomplished photographers. Can you talk a bit about your background as a printer and how it influenced your work as a photographer?

JD:     I was an assistant at the Avedon studio for three years back around 1990. As his assistant I did everything from on set lighting and camera work to film processing and printing in his studio’s basement. I had always an affinity for darkroom work but it was in his basement where my skills really grew. I continued to print for Avedon until his passing in 2004.

Working with Avedon opened the door to printing for Irving Penn, Annie Leibovitz, and Bruce Davidson amongst many others. I’ve always tried to keep my operation small and work closely with my clients and have been very fortunate.

Personally I don’t differentiate my photography from my printing. It’s all part of the same creative process. I’m always cognizant of what I’m shooting and how it will translate in the darkroom. While I was shooting in Mongolia, I was always visualizing how all the beautiful textures of white washed mud walls, wool carpets and wind weathered faces could be worked with in the final print.

Irving Penn once said, “A beautiful print is a thing in itself, not just a halfway house on the way to the page.” I totally agree and for me the process of getting to that beautiful print is as gratifying as the result.

Chintumar, 1998 and Brother 1, 2008 -- John Delaney

SB:     What are you working on now?

JD:     I seem to bounce back and forth between printing for clients and shooting my own work. Although lately I’ve been more focused on my photography.

Having been buried in the darkroom for so long I missed out on the digital revolution in photography. That along with the fact with many of my clients are moving to digital I decided to take some time off and retool. I just received my Masters in Digital Photography at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) here in NYC.

John Delaney working in Mongolia
I’m currently working on a portrait project entitled “Hoboken Passing”. It’s a series of color portraits of the last remaining “mom & pop” family businesses of my town Hoboken NJ, following in the tradition of August Sanders portraits and Irving Penn’s Small Trade series.

I see these as portraits of the last survivors of a neighborhood in transition. Hoboken’s older family businesses are quickly succumbing to the changing economy and closing their doors only to be replaced by ever-­ubiquitous chain stores. And with them much of what helps define Hoboken’s unique history and character is also fading away. It seems that a recurring theme of my work is the effort to record what is vanishing from our collective memory.

View John Delaney's portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase