Natural Design: Fancy Chickens and the People Who Love Them

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In The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens, a photographer teaches us that "chickens this amazing don't just happen"

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Humans have the beauty pageants. Dogs have the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. But who knew chickens, too, had their own line of competitive narcissism? In The Fairest Fowl: Portraits of Championship Chickens, photographer Tamara Staples documents the fascinating and glamorous world of poultry fanciers and their prized barnyard beauties, from the surprisingly elaborate judging process to the distinct personalities of individual birds that shine through Staples's portraits. Printed on appropriately lavish paper and garnished with a delicious essay by NPR's Ira Glass illuminating the intricacies of chicken portraiture, the book is equal parts rich anthropology of a curious subculture and remarkable feat of photographic brilliance.

"Chickens this amazing don't just happen. People help them along—breed them, nurture them, take them from the humble coop to the top of the poultry world. In what's left of rural America, there is a poultry world. And it's bigger than you think. At a recent national competition, 12,000 birds showed up."

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"In the world of championship chickens, there's a 100-point scale, and every feature counts. [...] The American Standard of Perfection is regularly linked 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."

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Equal parts kooky and artful, The Fairest Fowl captures a rare convergence of idiosyncrasy and idealism, making room for extraordinary grace and dignity in what could otherwise be dismissed as frivolous eccentricity.


This post also appears on Brain Pickings.
Images: Tamara Staples

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Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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