Photographing the Standard of Perfection

Reaching the "Standard of Perfection" is hard for a chicken, and no matter how hard you try to get them there, they just don’t care.

| May 2013

  • Magnificent-Chicken
    “The Magnificent Chicken” takes a deeper look into the world of poultry shows and how chickens try to reach the "Standard of Perfection."
    Cover Courtesy Chronicle Books
  • Brahama-Chicken
    Called upon to do human tasks, even rather passive ones, a bird remains a bird.
    Photo By Tamara Staples
  • Cornish-Chicken
    Humans have created a standard of what it means to be a chicken — a standard that most chickens can never meet.
    Photo By Tamara Staples
  • Author-Photo
    There is nothing that makes you realize just how inhuman chickens are than spending a day trying to make them seem human.
    Photo Courtesy Tamara Staples

  • Magnificent-Chicken
  • Brahama-Chicken
  • Cornish-Chicken
  • Author-Photo

Championship chickens take the stage in The Magnificent Chicken (Chronicle Books, 2013). Author Ira Glass reveals the more intimate details of poultry shows in the introduction. In this excerpt taken from “Trying to Respect a Chicken,” the author and photographer learn how difficult the Standard of Perfection is for a chicken to meet. 

In a way, it is like Tamara Staples is running an odd little cross-species science experiment that asks this question: What happens when you try to treat a chicken the way we treat humans, even if it is just for the length of a photo shoot?

What happens, it turns out, is you learn just what the thin line is that divides human beings from birds. Maybe it’s not just a thin line, but it is definitely a line. And like most city people, I had never thought about it — about where it lies, about what it might be, about what it might consist of — until Tamara and I headed out to a farm.

Outdoor sound, chickens clucking. 

PAUL: “I think that is the best one.”
TAMARA: “Yeah, we’ve got to get him. We don’t want him to get dirty, do we? Or does it matter?”
PAUL: “She runs loose every day.”
TAMARA: “Will we find her again? We are going to have to wrangle her, you know...”

We are at the Davidsons’ dairy farm, about an hour and a half northwest of Chicago. Family members present: Paul, who is helping Tamara choose a bird to photograph; his sister Laura, who is studying photography at a nearby university; their grandfather George Cairns, a veteran breeder; and their father Dick, who seems the most skeptical of this whole project. But he patiently shows Tamara and her assistant the milking barn as a possible place to set up and shoot.

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