In Paloma al aire, Ricardo Cases, part of Madrid’s vibrant young photography scene, explores a tradition from the Valencia region of Spain: pigeon racing. In this extraordinary sport, a single female pigeon is set free, along with a dozen males. The winning pigeon is the one that manages to “seduce” the female by spending the most time by her side. To help their pigeons stand out, the trainers paint their wings with bright colors. Cases has documented the activities of this strange tribe of enthusiasts as they prepare for the race, discussing their pigeons’ powers of seduction or luring them out of treetops. The pigeon, selected, bred, and trained to mate, becomes a projection of the pigeon fancier, representing his athletic, economic, and sexual success or failure.
Cases framed the photographs so we often see only a torso, or a pair of hands wrapped around a bird. In one, a pigeon appears like a baby kangaroo in his mother’s pocket. In another, a flock of pigeons gather under a tree at twilight, looking like invaders in an imaginary tropical paradise. Throughout the series, the colors are so saturated as to seem almost unreal. Raising a male champion brings prestige as well as profits: alongside his own pictures, Cases juxtaposes anonymous snapshots of the winners, each shown with his bird and a trophy, some dating back more than 50 years.
While this project, on view at Dillon Gallery through December 18, can be seen as documentary, Cases takes an almost conceptual approach, considering the symbolic aspects of the sport. The power of this series lies in its depiction of the intense relationships among the pigeon owners, and Cases makes the viewer feel them in an almost sensual way. But it also recalls the ethnographic documentation of tribal rituals: pigeon breeding and racing, carried out by adults in a developed society, reproducing a whole vision of life in scale, seen in an image of a group of men looking up at the sky, their gazes trained on the flight of their pigeons: their bet, their bullet, their lottery ticket.