The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens

Photographs by Tamara Staples

Essay by Ira Glass

Published by Chronicle Books

108 pages, 2001

Buy it online




The Girl Who Cried "Fowl!"

Reviewed by India Wilson


First of all, it should be underscored, understood and made quite clear that this is a book about chickens. The chickens in this book are not some euphemistic hint of chicken: It's not a joke book. Nor is there even a single recipe: It's not a cookbook. In fact, to say that The Fairest Fowl is about chickens is a bit of an understatement. It's like saying the Louvre is about art. Tamara Staples' book is a chicken celebration, taking the realities of our favorite barnyard fowl to heights the humble bird has never before achieved.

At least, so you'd think before reading Fairest Fowl, a book whose subtitle -- Portraits of Championship Chickens -- sounds like it would be tongue-in-cheek. It's not. Staples is a New York City-based photographer whose work has appeared in Harper's Magazine, Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times as well as many galleries. The Fairest Fowl seems to be a sort of heart project: like Cindy Sherman's many self-portraits or Jeff Selis' wacky canine portraits. Staples appears to be a serious photographer whose muse has taken her on a fowl ride.

I say "appears to" as, unfortunately, Staples never fully explains her (perhaps somewhat weird) passion other than letting us know, via her bio, that "She attended her first poultry show in 1988 with her uncle Ron, who had been breeding and showing chickens as a hobby since childhood. After earning a degree in photography, she began to take portraits of the birds in earnest in 1995."

The earnest photographs are beautiful. Taken against seamless backgrounds of varying colors and textures, Staples' purebred birds are adorned only by their own plumage and the canny expressions she manages to coax from them. Each photo is faced by a page that explains what type of chicken it is, the bird's provenance as well as highlights of its breed, the colors it can be found in and where this particular bird was photographed. And so we discover that the Mottled Houdan Bantam originated in France and is expected to have a "long, compact well-proportioned body with a full, well-rounded breast," or that the Silver Laced Wyandotte originated in New York State, but was "known under various names until 1883, when they became a Standard breed."

The Standard in question, as we're told early in the book, is the poultryman's bible, the Standard of Perfection, the first edition of which was published by the American Poultry Association in 1874.

The American Standard of Perfection is regularly likened to the Bible. 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.

Aside from explaining the Standard and a little of what goes on in the competitive world of championship chickens, Staples gives us a listing of all of the breeds of chickens exhibited in the United States (there are about 113 of them), a couple of pages with line drawings illustrating the varying comb types and a two-page spread that shows many types of feathers and gives a hint at the vast differences in chicken types that most of us would never have guessed at.

And then the chickens themselves -- page upon page of them -- and they are exquisite. As Staples tells Ira Glass in the interview that concludes the book, one which was first broadcast on Glass' public radio program This American Life in 1997:

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.

Whatever it is, it works. A happy little book sure to start conversations around your coffee table without ever inspiring the appetite. Find another book about chickens to do that. | August 2001


Freelance writer and artist India Wilson believes in magic.