Photographing the Standard of Perfection

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

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.

TAMARA: “It is a study of the birds, but it is an isolated study so people aren’t necessarily associat­ing them with the farm and something to eat.”

This does not seem to win over the farmers, so Tamara takes us all outside the barn and shows us her shots; as she does, she drops the names of some big chicken people, people whose birds she has photographed, including Bill Wulff, editor and publisher of Poultry Press. Dick notices that a bird in one photo has crooked toes.

IRA: “What do you guys think of the pictures?”
GEORGE: “Oh, the pictures are nice and sharp, I mean, there’s nothing wrong with the pictures. If there is anything to find fault with, it’s the birds.”

The fact is, while city people usually go nuts when they see Tamara’s pictures, a lot of chicken breeders don’t like them. To understand why, to fully comprehend this little culture clash here in America, we have to leave the barnyard for a minute and flash back to something that happened back at Tamara’s apartment in the city. Tamara showed me this old, red book from the turn of the century with the seal of the American Poultry Association in gold letters: Standard of Perfection.

Tamara flipped through the engravings and illustrations of various types and breeds. These were show chickens standing the way that chickens stand in competitions. Then Tamara pulled out one of her own photos for comparison–to show me how her poses do not meet the Standard.

TAMARA: “The tail needs to be higher, she is not standing erect, chest isn’t out, head needs to be up more … and you can see the shape of the chicken much better in the Standard of Perfection pose.”
IRA: “So is that a pose that the owners would want to own a photo of?”
TAMARA: “They are very particular. They want to see their bird in the Standard of Perfection pose. Definitely. ‘Cause that’s what they’ve been taught from 4-H, when they were kids.”

That’s for them. For herself, for her city customers, she chooses personality over perfection.

Okay, back to the barnyard.

Sound of bundles of hay being tossed.

Tamara and the Davidsons decide to set up the photo session in a room that usually stores feed for the cows. It takes about 45 minutes to set this up. That 45 minutes includes dismantling and moving a wall of hay that is probably 10 feet high and 15 feet long. This takes five people. Then, in comes the power and the fancy lights and the cloth backdrop that gets hung from the steel pole. The backdrop is ironed first with an iron and ironing board brought from the city just for that purpose. It was cold, well below freezing — so cold that the Polaroid film that Tamara uses for lighting tests does not fully develop.

TAMARA: “I just want to commune with the bird.” She leans in close to the chicken. “We just want to make you pretty. Look how sweet. You know what? I am going to photograph you. My name is Tamara; I’ll be your photographer for today.”

Our first bird is a white Cornish, a show bird that belongs to George. Tamara has the Cornish stand up on a stack of little, red, antique books, kind of unsteady. Things go well for a while, she gets a half-dozen good shots of the bird, expressive shots… but more personality than Standard of Perfection, George tells me. The bird’s chest isn’t high enough, its body is not turned correctly to the camera. And then the bird stops cooperating. He gets tired. Paul has a suggestion:

PAUL: “Bring in a pullet.”
TAMARA: “You know that works!”
IRA: “What does it mean to bring in a pullet?”
GEORGE: “We think maybe a female will perk him up.”

Laura grabs a hen and waves it at the flaccid cock. The cock does not rise.

I can say that on the radio, right?

PAUL: “Laura, it would probably be better to get the one from the other pen that he’s not used to.”
TAMARA: “Fresh blood. Bring him around…”
IRA: “The rooster will show off more for a hen that it doesn’t know?”
PAUL: “Yes. If you put him with new hens he will really show off.”

They try this and that. Nothing with much success. Finally with one shot left, Paul suggests putting a hen into the picture with the rooster.

TAMARA: “Ooh, ooh, did you see that? She looked up at him very sweetly, like that, with her head cocked. The male bird was posing and she was posing also but had a personality of just being like the sweet, doting mother.”
IRA: “But not Standard of Perfection?”
TAMARA: “But not Standard of Perfection.”

Even these perfectly bred Cornishes could not achieve SOP today. And an hour of watching them makes clear just how hard it is to get the birds to hit the Standard. Humans have created a standard of what it means to be a chicken — a standard that most chickens can never meet. We judge them as chickens and we find them lacking. If they had the brains to understand this, they would be right to feel indignant.

But this is a city person’s perspective, and it is of course completely wrong-headed from the point of view of anyone who raises birds. Standing in the cold feed room I had a long, long talk with George about this. George is 80 years old and has been raising birds since the Calvin Coolidge administra­tion. And he says the whole fun of raising birds is raising them to the Standard.

George tells me that when he is breeding a new batch of birds, he’ll hatch sixty-five of them and only one or two will be anywhere near the Standard of Perfection. That’s how hard it is.

Tamara finishes hanging and lighting the next backdrop and the rest of us begin with the second bird — one called a Brahma.

IRA: “This is a chicken the size of a dog!”
PAUL: “Not that big.”
IRA: “A small dog.”

Our second bird demonstrates the great distance between bird instinct and the demands of modern fashion photography, which is to say, of civilization. Called upon to do human tasks, even rather passive ones, a bird remains a bird. Paul carries the huge chicken onto the fragile little set Tamara had built.

TAMARA: “He’s a beauty. Whatcha eatin’ there, buddy? (A sudden flurry and snap of chicken wings.) Ohh, he slapped me. I’m scared of this one.”

She adjusts her camera. The chicken is so big — 9 pounds, the size of a small consumer turkey — that she has to pull the camera back. Then there are the props. She is trying an experiment, putting a little toy horse in the picture with the chicken, a tiny wagon. This does not seem to help things. The Davidsons are looking at her skeptically. Paul asks pointedly if she has ever shot a bird this big.

Imagine this, please, from the point of view of the chicken. You are surrounded by powerful crea­tures five times your height. They crowd in on you; they leer at you. You are standing on a surface, Tamara’s set, where it is impossible to get decent footing. There is a 3-foot-tall strobe light — a strobe light twice your height — just a wing’s length away from your beaky little face.

TAMARA: “He needs a few minutes to relax. Hello, bird. Are you going to slap me in the face again? I hope not. Let’s talk. I need you to be beautiful. Here’s your moment. (Disobedient sounds from the bird.) Okay. There are more where you came from, buddy–you’d better straighten up here.”

The combination of coddling and threats might motivate an aspiring supermodel or an eager puppy, but this, after all, is a chicken. Forget Standard of Perfection, this chicken does not even stand up straight. It sags, it slouches. Paul tries to lure it up with a handful of corn. And somewhere dur­ing this ordeal, a funny thing happens. All of the Davidsons, who started off skeptical, are completely engaged. Dick suggests a pose that is pure art concept, a pose that could not be any further from Standard of Perfection. Laura lures the bird with corn. Paul smoothes feathers. Dick and various other relatives have all been standing on the edge of the feeder; now they all lean in right next to Tamara. And when the bird quivers or moves a wing, three people jump in to fix it back up.

TAMARA: “There’s some feathers on the breasts, a little bit, fluffy. Okay, that looks good. He’s a little too far. You guys are a great team. I am going to hire you to come with me. Okay, great. Move the hand, move the hand. Okay, great.”

I realized that I came into this sort of expecting the bird to be more, well, more human. Partly, I think, because I had never thought about this one way or the other. And partly because Tamara’s photos make chickens seem so thoughtful.

Those photos are a lie.

As the day continues and Tamara shoots other birds, it becomes clear. The glimpses of personal­ity that she is able to capture on film, these are just momentary; these are fleeting. A bird turns its head for an instant at a certain angle or a bird squints his eyes at the camera, and for a moment through the camera lens, to a human, it looks like recognizable personality, emotion. But really it’s just a chicken. And watching, I think I begin to understand why the people who breed birds have no interest in photos that show chickens’ true personalities. It is because in their true personali­ties, chickens are kind of a pain in the ass. They may be capable of affection or loyalty or maybe even pride, but if so, they feel these feelings in an ancient and bird-like way, like glassy-eyed visitors from another world.

The fact is you can try to give chickens respect. You can try to treat them with dignity and photograph them the way that you would try to photograph anything serious, but the chickens will not care.

IRA: “Do you feel like your relationship with chickens has changed because of this?”
TAMARA: “No, not at all. I order the chicken when I am at the show. I eat it right in front of the chickens.”
IRA: “You eat chicken while you are standing there with a chicken?”
TAMARA: “Yes! Is it wrong? I’m hungry.”
IRA: “Well, no wonder they won’t stand still.”

We pack up our gear and move the massive wall of hay back into place. As we do this, chickens hop by, Brahmas, Ameraucanas, mixed breeds. They seem utterly uninterested in us. They cluck at each other, there’s feed to eat, hay to nestle in. They have better things to do with their time. And you know, there is nothing that makes you realize just how inhuman chickens are than spending a day trying to make them seem human.

This American Life, first broadcast December 5, 1997 

Reprinted with permission from The Magnificent Chicken: Portraits of the Fairest Fowl by Ira Glass and published by Chronicle Books, 2013.

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