For years Tamara Staples has been exploring the curious subculture of American poultry shows, seeking finely feathered subjects for her elegant portraits. The championship chickens are shot like celebrities, with dramatic lighting and rich, colourful backgrounds that capture the glamour and the personalities of the individual birds. After the success of her first coffee table book The Fairest Fowl she is releasing a sequel The Fancy which gives further intimate insight into the barnyard beauties and the breeders who nurture them. We spoke to Staples about posing poultry, chicken shit and her unusual muses.
How did the chicken portrait project come about?
My favourite Uncle, Ron, raises and shows chickens. He lives in Athens, Georgia, and when I was living in Atlanta, I would visit him. I found myself in conversation with him often and of course the talk turned to chickens. One day he invited me to a poultry show and the rest is history.
Buff Cochin Bantam Hen
What were your experiences of the American Poultry Show before embarking on the project?
I attended a show in Georgia with my Uncle in 1988 but it wasn’t until the mid 90s while living in Chicago that I began my project in earnest. It’s kind of a funny story in that other than a camera, I didn’t own much photography equipment or really know how to shoot on location. Friends would let me borrow a light or two, or a sync cord or some extension cords. It was a total learn on the job experience. At first I rarely returned home with a single shot I liked. Little by little I started developing a style and after four years of building a portfolio of images, I knew I was ready to do something with the birds. People began responding to these resplendent creatures.
Blue Wheaton Old English Bantam
Can you describe the shows for me a little and how many birds and breeds are entered?
The shows are really fun, the people are all super nice and eager for you to photograph their birds. The first thing you’ll notice is the cacophony of crows and the acidic smell of chicken shit - a small price to pay for being in the company of such amazing creatures. The adjoined cages are set up in rows and the birds are arranged by breeds. People load in their chickens early, then hang around talking about breeding techniques, how to prevent frost bite or perhaps where to get the best coops. For lunch, naturally they eat chicken sandwiches. The judges finish up around 4pm, when everyone assembles for Championship row. The average poultry show displays about 700-900 birds. These shows are where I get my images so we work really hard to get as many chickens as possible to shoot. I have no idea what chickens I’ll end up shooting so we come prepared with many new background options.
Black Bearded Silkie Bantam Hen
What are the owners of the chickens like and did any of them have a special relationship with their bird?
The people that show birds are very nice people. I would say that most of them are family oriented, religious and probably more on the conservative side politically. There are exceptions of course. This is a family hobby, entire families show birds, starting as early as four years old up to grandparents. I think most people think of their birds as something competitive, especially if you understand that they might hatch out several hundred chicks each year to find the best bird. They sell a lot of these birds and then they keep the best for showing or breeding. One thing is for sure, these chickens live very good lives.
How does your perception of a chickens beauty or appeal as photographic subject differ from the ideal sought by Poultry Show judges?
Like the judges, I am looking for a beautiful bird, but where they might be looking for a specific feather pattern or the shape of the comb, I look for personality. Like all good portraiture, the character of the subject is what shines through.
White Leghorn Bantam Cock
Were you particularly fond of any of your subjects?
Each breed, each bird has a distinct personality. It is easier to have someone else pose the bird but I often try to hold the bird or at least pet him. I find that some are receptive to affection. Sometimes when I am editing I’ll come across a bird that is really posing, looking straight into the lens, it seems as if he knows why he was there, that he was communicating with me.
Did you encounter any challenges in photographing your subject matter?
Some of the younger birds go crazy and we spend most of the shooting time trying to catch them. We place them back on the background and immediately they jump off the set and run pell-mell. And also there is a lot of bird shit.
Americana Buff Bantam Cock
Were your subjects difficult to handle?
Each bird is so different it could go either way. Some birds are just plain tired from the travel and alien surroundings so by the time they come to us, they might sit down or face the background no matter how many times you try to position them.
Would you consider taking on a pet chicken of your own?
In a heart beat! Unfortunately I live in a small apartment in Brooklyn. But one day…
See more of Tamara's remarkable work at tamarastaples.com