Tamara Staples (Brooklyn, NY) received her BFA/Photography from The University of Florida, Gainesville, Fla. She is a recipient of the NYFA Grant for Photography and the PDN/Nikon Self/Promotion Award. Recently her work has been exhibited at Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, Oregon: Orton Davis Gallery, Hudson, NY. Her work has also been exhibited at Purdue University Galleries, Lafayette, Indiana; Georgia Museum of Art, Athens, Ga; Ricco Maresca Gallery, NYC; Museum of Modern Art, Baltimore, MD; Aron Packer Gallery, Chicago, Il; and Lightworks Gallery, Charlotte, NC. As an artist and commercial photographer her work has appeared in numerous publications including Harper’s Magazine, NY Times, Chicago Tribune Magazine, Food and Wine, Town and Country, Utne Reader and Bloomberg Business Magazine. Her work has been featured on This American Life, CNN, Slate Magazine and NPR’s Animal House. Her newest book, The Magnificent Chicken (2013), was published by Chronicle Books. www.tamarastaples.com
Chickens have been a part of human history seemingly since time began. Individual societies maintain a variety of meanings and traditions associated with these birds. Today, we equate chicken with food. However, there is an existing culture that aims to perfect these birds through breeding based on a book entitled, The Standard of Perfection, first published in 1874. At poultry shows all over the world, known as The Fancy, chickens of all shapes, colors and sizes await their judgment. As animals become extinct all around us, ancient chicken breeds thrive with the help of a passionate group. Each breeder has spent years creating a work of art, where genetics is key. And each bird IS a work of art, from the amount of toes on each foot to the wingspan, from the color to the weight. Judges carefully inspect every detail.
Arthur Schilling documented these birds with photography at the beginning of the 20th century; a time when chicken shows were at their prestigious peak. The exhibitors would attend the shows in places like Madison Square Gardens sporting a top hat. Not since that time has anyone attempted to document the entirety of these exquisite birds. The first American Poultry show was held in 1849 in Boston. By 1925, there were more than 300 major poultry shows all over the country, excluding country fairs or 4H clubs. At this time in history few outside of The Fancy even know of their existence. Thanks to the Farm to Table movement and a relaxation of urban livestock laws, we’ve seen a resurgence of “the hobby”. In fact, it’s never been more popular.
In setting out to document these birds, I chose to elevate their status by photographing them in front of lush fabrics and papers, the same way the Dutch used expensive fabrics to denote a certain dignity, wealth and prestige in society. To pair the chickens with this identifier helps the viewer to understand that these are not your eating kind of chickens. Indeed, these birds are bred solely for show and live luxuriously into old age. My intent was to create a portrait of each bird, to show it’s unique qualities and to raise its rank to the level that demanding respect.