Out Of The Blue

When Michael Smith snapped a photo of a bluebird in his backyard, he had no idea how it would change his life. And the Largo photographer says it's not even his best work.

January 04, 2000|By LISA POLLAK | LISA POLLAK,SUN STAFF

A picture of a bluebird, that's all he was after. Not money and fame, not admirers and accolades, not the chance to quit his day job and take pictures full-time. Photographing birds was his passion; it always would be. One good shot out of 100 was worth it.

And so it was that on a cold February day in 1979, Michael L. Smith set up a tripod in his Largo backyard, pointed his camera toward a fence post and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

He wasn't trying to change his life. He wasn't trying to buy the house of his dreams. He wasn't trying to become Michael Smith, the guy who took that bluebird photo.

He was just trying to take a photo of a bluebird.

And here came his chance. A male Eastern bluebird flew into the backyard and landed on the fence post. It hunkered down. It fluffed up its feathers. It fixed its black beady eyes on the long lens of the camera.

Sixty feet away, Smith couldn't see any of this. He sat in his house, holding a remote camera trigger, watching the bluebird through a glass door.

All he could see was that the bird was facing the camera.

Click.

The bird flew away. The man went on with his life. Neither, it seems safe to say, had any idea what they'd done.

More than 20 years later, Smith still can't entirely believe it.

If you owed your fortune to a bird, you might not either.

As it turned out, that was no ordinary bluebird. It was a grumpy bluebird. A ticked-off, glowering, down-in-the-beak bluebird. Or so it appeared to humans, and that's what mattered, because at last count humans have bought more than 102,000 signed prints of "The Mad Bluebird" -- a phenomenal number by most photographers' standards. And it doesn't even include the tens of thousands of "Mad Bluebird" stained-glass sun catchers that have sold.

In other words, the man who has spent his life taking intimate portraits of birds -- a photographer who has slept in duck blinds, spent 13 years of summer weekends documenting the habits of a single osprey and crawled through his yard with a blanket over his head to avoid disturbing his subjects -- achieved his greatest success with a photo he didn't especially like the first time he saw it and still doesn't list among his very best.

And that doesn't bother him a bit. Thanks to "The Mad Bluebird," Smith has quit his job as an electrician, become a full-time free-lance wildlife photographer and traded his townhouse for a 4,000-square-foot dream home on 13 acres in New Windsor. The financial details of his windfall Smith keeps private. But consider: Smith charges $26 for a matted 5-by-7 print of "The Mad Bluebird"; the Signals catalog charges $58 for a framed 5-by-7; the Orvis catalog charges $95 for a framed 8-by-10.

It's not hard to get the picture.

"It has put me in a whole new world financially," says Smith, "I was an electrician for 32 years, and I made good money, but nothing like this."

When he says it, he doesn't sound like he's gloating. He sounds proud, grateful and still plenty stunned. When Smith moved into his new home in the fall of 1998, a copy of "The Mad Bluebird" was the first possession over the threshold; today, a giant print above the kitchen table reminds him every day who he has to thank. He feels indebted to the bird not just for his home, but also for his girlfriend, Marci Krishnamoorthy, whom he met while delivering prints to the nature store where she worked.

Despite the volume of prints sold, Smith still signs each one by hand -- he bought a signature machine but it felt too impersonal. He still gets teary talking about the strangers his photo has touched, such as the old woman from Pennsylvania with cancer who told him "The Mad Bluebird" boosts her morale. And he still seems to relish telling his far-from-overnight success story.

It begins in 1983, when "The Mad Bluebird" was used as the cover of a brochure for a National Geographic bird book. People loved the photo so much that they ripped off the covers and framed them; the same thing happened when the photograph appeared on the Duncraft birding supply catalog a year later.

"A lot of our customers do take our covers off, but the response to this cover was way off the charts," says Sharon Dunn, Duncraft co-owner. "Then the idea occurred: We should be offering this as a print."

After the Signals catalog started carrying the print in 1996, sales really started to fly; Smith began filling orders for thousands, not hundreds, of prints at a time. Today "The Mad Bluebird" is available in five catalogs, about 80 stores and direct from Smith.

(It is not, for the record, sold by the National Geographic Society, although National Geographic gets so many calls about it that purchasing information for "The Mad Bluebird" is now included on a voice-mail recording for frequently asked questions.)

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