Interview by Sarah Martin
Photography by Tamara Staples
If there are two things I love most in life, it’s photography and animals. Legendary photographers—like Elliott Erwitt, Garry Winogrand, and William Wegman—have proven that you can indeed make compelling and surprising images whether your subject be feathered or four-legged. Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting the artist Tamara Staples who has made portraits of champion chickens for several years. Tamara’s work has been featured in a book, The Fairest Fowl, and was the subject of an episode on NPR’s This American Life with Ira Glass.
SM: Tamara, I love your newer photographs which include portraits of the chickens’ breeders, especially the image of the mother/daughter team. Can you tell me a bit about those women and that amazing chicken mansion?
TS: This is Jackie and Vanessa Koedatich, a mother and daughter team from Massachusetts that show Buff Brahma Bantams.They are very experienced breeders and Jackie also judges competitions. She started out showing dogs with her family when she was younger and fell quite naturally into showing chickens. The chicken “retirement home” they are posing in front of is designed to resemble their own house. They also have a large barn where the bulk of their show chickens live.
SM: I would have never believed that chickens have such personalities, but when I look at your photographs it’s evident that each bird is unique not only in their physical makeup but also in their temperament, or dare I say, attitude? Are there any birds with whom you developed a kinship?
TS: Each breed has its own temperament and within each breed you will find a variety of different personalities, just like people. The entire project was based on making portraits of each of these birds and, subsequently, each of these personalities. It was not difficult to find something special about each one. Even photographing the birds from ten feet away, I was so surprised at how aware each bird was of my presence. When I came home and looked at the work and saw each bird was looking straight at me and straight into the camera, it was, and still is, a thrill. It feels as if I’ve made contact.
Beyond that, there’s not been one particular bird, necessarily, but there have been some birds that were more aware than you’d think. People think chickens are dumb, and maybe they are, but they still have feelings. Plus, I’ve always had a thing for the underdog.
SM: I can only imagine the difficulty in the photographic process itself. Can you describe how you prepare for a session?
TS: Making portraits is always a gamble and that’s part of the fun. The photographer is only half of the equation. The subject must bring something as well. When photographing chickens, you have to realize their circumstances. At the shows, they have usually traveled great distances, been cooped up in a cage for days, and then been asked to settle in next to several complete strangers for days on end. By the time they get to me, they are either tired or just excited to be out of the cage. Many of them like to relieve themselves on my backgrounds while others simply make a run for it. But the ones I don’t have to cajole or entice, they get it and those are the ones that I connect with.
SM: Have you developed a series of tricks to get the birds to pose? I believe I read something about using a “pullet?”
TS: I don’t have tricks so much. A pullet is a female under a year old. The idea is that if you are photographing a male and he will not pose or even stand up straight, you could bring in a young female that he is not familiar with and he might just perk up.
SM: I’m so happy to have met you and learned about your project. The images are fabulous. Where is the best place to view your work online?
Tamara’s new book, The Magnificent Chicken, is set to be released in early 2013 by Chronicle Books. I will be buying several copies for all the chicken lovers in my life.