Johannes Pretorius is a South African photographer who has lived in Lancaster for just over a decade. Portrait of a Pigeon Racer was photographed in early summer 2022 at a loft on Lancaster canal
As a non-British resident of the UK, I am very aware of and interested in how places acquire meaning. Portrait of a Pigeon Racer was an ideal project to explore this.
Pigeon racing and its related culture are often associated with a bygone era, but these photographs are not about the past. Pigeons are only part of the story, maybe even a means to an end. What this series is really about is the importance of place as a base from which to nurture aspiration.
All things pigeon eventually lead back to Belgium, where the sport became enormously popular during the 19th century. To this day, many birds’ lineages can be traced back to a Belgian breeder. It was also in Belgium where I first met a pigeon enthusiast, Luc Van Coppenholle, who gave me a short tour of his loft.
Still curious on my return to the UK, I remembered once seeing a loft during a walk in Lancashire. Portrait of a Pigeon Racer was photographed in early summer 2022 at this loft on the Lancaster canal. I knew this loft by sight and made a 'cold call' there one day. With some trepidation, but armed with a handful of pigeon-specific terms gleaned in Belgium, I knocked on the door. It was answered by a burly but kind man who was to become my host for many weeks.
It turned out that he is a successful second-generation pigeon racer who has won national championships. He is a member of two Lancaster pigeon clubs and, during summer, he usually enters birds into both clubs' races every weekend.
Like my Belgian acquaintance, his loft is meticulously tended and carries deep significance. As the final destination for every journey his pigeons make, it is the centre of his world. All their flight paths point back to it, like the spokes of a wheel come together at the hub.
The loft is also where pigeons are bred, fed, cared for, and trained. During racing season, it is where the birds are basketed before they are transported to a faraway liberation point. One or two days later, it is where the pigeon racer waits in anxious anticipation for their return. It is a place of elation at a possible winning time and of disappointment on a slow return, or worse still, no return.
Homing pigeons captured my imagination because it all seems so unlikely. It seems improbable that, with the freedom of flight, the birds fly straight back home, even when released hundreds of kilometres away. It also seems implausible that, with all the hazards along the way, they actually make it. I maintain that this must be at the core of why the birds so enthral their owners.
Most of all, pigeon racing is a metaphor. The pigeons’ return reaffirms being bound to a place and reasserts the certainty of the idea of home. The ambition and hope that the birds' return embody for the racer - precisely because it seems so unlikely - is really no different from the aspirations that we all chase. In this sense, Portrait of a Pigeon Racer could be a representation of any one of us.
Pigeon racing is not as popular as it once was, but there are still many enthusiasts who regularly enter races. The governing body for pigeon racing in the UK is the Royal Pigeon Racing Association - and the two clubs local to Lancaster are the Lancashire & District Flying Club and the Lune Valley 2 Bird Club (unfortunately, they do not have websites).
Johannes Pretorius' work can be viewed HERE