II-7 White #22, 2009 Kopie

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite” (all images © Jean Pagliuso)

For most of her four-decade-long career, photographer Jean Pagliuso focused her lens on the fashion industry and on Hollywood, producing images of celebrities meant for magazines and movie posters. Her latest series, which began last year, spotlights a wholly different, unexpected model: the chicken. Framing each fowl alone, Pagliuso has captured these birds with remarkable, individual expression, inviting us to take a much closer look at the common species. Her images were previously on view at Mary Ryan Gallery in New York, but they are now gathered in Poultry Suite, a book recently released by the University of Chicago Press.

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite” (click to enlarge)

Featuring nearly 50 black-and-white photographs of over 20 breeds of chickens, Poultry Suite presents the simple winged creature as one would a sitter in a studio. Pagliuso adopts the traditional style of the formal portrait, devoting each page to one bird shown against a plain background, full-bodied or closely cropped to its face. It’s surprising to flip through the pages and find oneself mesmerized by a usually overlooked creature, but Pagliuso’s poultry seem to have emotions. A black rooster with a gleaming eye appears cocky (pun unintended); a white one, with its sharp comb resembling the plates of a stegosaurus, gazes stoically away as if lost in thought. The birds’ plumages, though natural, also transform through Pagliuso’s lens into costumes that present them as exotic avians. Some are amusing, with extravagant headpieces; others are simply beautiful, with variegated feathers that resemble the patterns of stained glass windows.

Granted, these are no ordinary chickens but rather the prized show birds Pagliuso helped her father breed in California; still, it takes a certain mastery of the photographic medium to render an animal usually recognized as food or farm resident with such dignity and mystery. Eric Fischl notes in one of the publication’s many accompanying texts that the works are reminiscent of August Sander‘s portraits in that they adhere to strict documentation. Still, the gossamer texture of Pagliuso’s images, printed on soft, Japanese rice paper, have an illusory quality that bring to mind even portraits from the Victorian era.

Portraits of animals are, of course, not novel, but rarely are they elevated, with such subtlety, to possess a natural nobleness. Although working in another medium, British painter George Stubbs is one who accomplished this as well, long before Pagliuso. Choosing most often the horse as his model (a series of these works is currently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art), he studied its anatomy closely to paint his steeds with realistic detail while still invigorating them with personality. Both his works and Pagliuso’s are not overly anthropomorphic, and it is this fine straddling of hard reality and open possibility that makes their sitters so magnetic.

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Jean Pagliuso, from “Poultry Suite”

Poultry Suite is available via the University of Chicago Press. 

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Claire Voon

Claire Voon is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Singapore, she grew up near Washington, D.C. and is now based in Chicago. Her work has also appeared in New York Magazine, VICE,...

2 replies on “Portraits of Contemplative and Cocky Poultry”

  1. They are beautiful, but I am sad to learn the photographer is also their breeder and that this is a glorification of manipulation of animal species and breeding in an era where billions of chickens are discarded annually (not even eaten, but just discarded as refuse in the egg-hatching process.) The breeding of animals – especially ones for show or entertainment – is particularly sad in an era where we are questioning animal overbreeding and it’s impact on health, the environment and the animals themselves. The breeding of chickens in particular is certainly not for the benefit of the chicken. These man-made, modified animals do not have any of the survival traits and benefits of their more natural counterparts. For example, Silkie Chickens have had the “barbs” of their feathers removed via breeding, which takes away their natural ability to fan their feathers and have control of their own body temperature. Many breeds have misshapen fanciful combs, such as “rose combs” which cover their nose holes and hamper breathing. As you can see in these photos, many have fanciful feather “headdresses” that block their peripheral vision making them more prone to predation. I appreciate someone documenting and photographing animals but more appreciate it when they are rescued animals, from shelters and sanctuaries. As the movie “Cowspiracy” (viewable on Netflix free with your account, as of September 15th. I do not work for the film but have organized community screenings) clearly shows without a trace of doubt, that our days of rampantly breeding animals for our own amusement or edification is taxing resources, the environment and human health – not to mention it is inhumane for the animals. People who breed these fancy chickens are more interested in them as accessories and examples of human intervention – instead of actually appreciating and respecting the Wild Jungle Fowl from whom they descended. With respect, I hope the photographer turns these talents towards the noble act of helping highlight the plight of animals who are homeless, discarded and in need of care.

  2. The pictures are beautiful because of the animals but I don’t understand the irresponsibility of breeding when livestock and chicken rescue groups must turn people away constantly that need to find a home for theirs or when some ignoramus decides not to breed anymore. = (

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