“Looking at these old graves makes me think how generation after generation of the same family are all gathered together. And that makes me think about how life goes on.” John Berendt penned these words in his 1994 non-fiction novel Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Although the initial print run was a moderate 25,000 copies, the book became a hit, setting records on the New York Times Bestseller list. Today, over 2.5 million copies are in print, and the book has been published in 24 countries. While the book is a commercial success, so too is the iconic photograph that graces the cover of every edition. Photographed by Jack Leigh, “Bird Girl” depicts a graveyard statue of a young girl holding a bowl in each upturned hand. The statue stands against a backdrop of Spanish moss dripping from live oak trees—creating an eeriness befitting a story about murder and southern gentry.
The Bird Girl statue stood quietly in a Savannah cemetery for decades, largely unnoticed, until Leigh’s photograph catapulted it—and himself to fame. But what of the statue itself? Created in 1936 by Sylvia Shaw Judson in Lake Forest, Illinois, the 50-inch-high bronze piece was commissioned by a Massachusetts family as a bird feeder for their garden. While attending a recital at the neighborhood dance studio, Eli Bates settlement house, Judson noticed 8-year-old Lorraine Greenman and asked her to model for the piece. For many years, no one knew the identity of the bird girl. Greenman left Lake Forrest to attend college, moved to a Chicago suburb, and married a dentist, changing her last name to Ganz. Now 90 years old, she once contacted the publisher to inform them of her connection to the book but they were not interested in her story.
Only four statues were made from the original cast. The first was sent to the Massachusetts family who commissioned the piece, the second went to Washington D.C., the third remained in Lake Forest, and the fourth found a home on the Trosdal family plot in the Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah. It was there that Leigh, a Savannah native, created his most famous photograph. When Random House approached Leigh to create the cover image for Berendt’s debut book, a suggestion from the author inspired him to look for gravestones in the cemetery. As dusk fell at the end of Leigh’s second day roaming the cemetery grounds, he stumbled across the Bird Girl statue. The figure holds a bowl in each hand as though weighing good and evil, and her slight head tilt is both innocent and eerie. Leigh spent ten hours in the darkroom perfecting the print. The glow around the statue that gives the piece a moonlit feel is the result of substantial dodging.
The Bird Girl became a symbol of Savannah. An unofficial tourist attraction, the statue was relocated to Telfair Museums after the Trosdal family complained about visitors causing damage to their family’s plot. The photograph’s popularity encouraged Leigh to open a gallery in the city’s historic district where he showed not only his work, but photographs by those he admired. A well-known portrait and documentary photographer, Leigh published five monographs of his own work (Oystering: A Way of Life, Nets & Doors: Shrimping in Southern Waters, Seaport: A Waterfront at Work, The Land I’m Bound to Photograph, The Ogeechee: A River and Its People, and Ossabaw: Evocations of an Island). Leigh’s friend, novelist Pat Conroy wrote: “[Jack] could not raise his camera without telling me about a South I never knew.” Of the bird girl photograph Leigh wrote: “As a Savannahian whose family has been here for over two centuries, I take great pride in having created it. The image was truly born out of love for, and understanding of, the place I call home." Leigh, who died in 2004, is buried in the same cemetery where he made “The Bird Girl” but will live on through his work. As Berendt wrote, the gravestones remind us how life goes on.
Kat Kiernan is the Editor-in-Chief of Don’t Take Pictures.