Ever since I read Susan Orlean’s 2009 essay about raising backyard chickens in The New Yorker, I’ve been completely and totally obsessed with the idea. Although I consider myself a city guy through and through, there’s something irresistibly romantic about the bucolic act of owning one’s own chicken coop. As the modern world’s gastronomic climate changes and local/organic/slow food movements gain traction, the vocation has taken on even more appeal. I often imagine the various pleasantries that must accompany chicken husbandry—waking up to the comforting sound of rooster call, picking freshly laid eggs for breakfast, tending the chicken coop, and enjoying the little feathered beasts as they cluck-cluck-cluck around the yard. Unfortunately, I live in a shared apartment building, so I can only imagine—at least for the time being.
Luckily, a wonderful book has been released this month that at least somewhat satiates by bizarre urge to become a mother hen. Entitled The Magnificent Chicken, the volume contains stunning photographic studies of all manner of domesticated fowl, from the more traditional breeds to the downright strange. Photographed by Tamara Staples, a photographer who earned her acclaim by documenting poultry shows, each image is a loving portrait of its subject— the beautiful, but oftentimes overlooked chicken. Each portrait is accompanied by a wonderful information page with facts about the breed and diagrams of the bird’s feather pattern and color palette.
Although the photographs are the book’s main attraction, one reason that it’s a keeper is because of the wonderful insight it provides into the strange, somewhat underground world of poultry showing. Similar to dog shows, these events judge poultry by their adherence to The Standard of Perfection, The American Poultry Association’s 1874 guide to judging fowl attractiveness. “The American Standard of Perfection is regularly likened to the Bible,” Staples writes. “Almost every breeder or judge speaks of the book in such exalted terms. The Standard exhaustively discusses every possible nuance of a show chicken, and there is little to no ambiguity between its covers.” Staples, in her prefatory interview with noted radio host Ira Glass, notes that her photos are often only a hit amongst urban-dwellers, because they veer too far from the Standard’s standards. “The tail needs to be higher, she is not standing erect, chest isn’t out, head needs to be up more….” Still, despite Staples’ divergence from the typical practice of poultry documentation, her beautiful photographs document a different kind of perfection—one that is rooted more in the nuance than exactitude. Through her photographs, one can see the beauty of the bird’s form, the way its stunning feathers interact with light, and the odd, almost humanistic expressions of her subject’s faces. It’s certainly not a book to miss, especially for aspiring chicken-keepers like myself. To see more photos of this fabulous love letter to “the fairest fowl,” continue after the jump! —Max
Above image: An illustrated page outlines some of the features of a “winning” bird.
Above image: The Lemon Blue Modern Game Bantam Pullet, a rather unique-looking breeder chicken.