Black + White Photography
by Susan Burnstine
In her new book Literary Chickens, Beth Moon captures the personality of a range of different chickens. But the book also carries an important conservation message. She talks to Susan Burnstine.
Beth Moon has documented a diverse range of subject matter within the natural world and her latest project proves to be as delightful as it is profound. Most recently, her long-term work focusing on ancient trees was published in two consecutive books that catapulted her to become an international sensation. Yet despite her success, Moon has remained one of the most down to earth and sincere people in the world of photography and it’s those very same qualities that shine through all of her work.
Moon’s newest book, Literary Chickens (Abbeville Press, 2018), documents 52 arresting, funny and flamboyant heritage-breed chickens, all of which present a remarkable range of emotion and personality. Each portrait is uniquely paired with a literary excerpt, though it’s the undercurrent of conservationism that strikes the deepest of cords.
Moon was first inspired to photograph chickens after she became more informed about the realities of the food industry. Specifically, her motivation came when she learned about the way animals were treated. “I hope by shining a spotlight on the chicken, the most engineered of our farm animals, that it would make it harder to accept the cruelty that is part of the food industry,” she says.
Moon assumed her subjects would be difficult to photograph, but had no idea how challenging they’d actually be. “After looking at the results of the trial shoot, I must admit I saw many empty frames,” she says. “Chickens move with lightning speed. But there was one frame towards the end, where I learned to compensate for movement and leaned to the left. The hen looked directly at me, and it was at that moment that I felt a connection.”
Each chicken displayed near human-like qualities in addition to a remarkable variety of expressions when sitting for a portrait. Moon’s initial intention to create these portraits was to explore the emotions of animals in a series. “It wasn’t my goal to capture human-like qualities, and I was actually surprised at the wide range of expressions they have. But I feel that if we ignore our similarities, we risk seeing the birds as separate, and I think empathy plays an important role, so we can see them as animals that deserve respect,” she says. “The farther we go from nature, the more we seem to lose, and it’s not just the animals and the trees, but diversity in general. This world of symbiotic, interconnected relationships that ensure survival cannot be repeated.”
The majority of the chickens photographed for this book are endangered, specifically because only a few select breeds have been used in the food industry for many years so raising the remaining breeds became impractical to most. Additionally, Moon was mostly interested in photographing heritage breeds because they differ from factory breeds as they are slow growing, naturally mated chickens with a long productive outdoor life.
Primatologist and anthropologist Dr. Jane Goodall and actress Isabella Rossellini provide very personal, moving essays in the book. “Jane Goodall has long been a hero of mine,” Moon says. “I first came into contact with Jane in 2013 when she wrote on behalf of a previous book, Ancient Trees. Her work with chimpanzees has changed the way we look at animals and was a great inspiration to me doing this work. By example, she has taught me that the collective power of the individual action can make a big difference.”
Moon contacted Isabella Rossellini directly to photograph some of her heritage breed chickens last year. “She has the most wonderful farm in Long Island with sheep, pigs, turkeys, dogs, and bees. Isabella believes each farm has a part to play in genetic diversity,” she says.
Another notable element about the book is that each portrait is paired with quotations from classic literature. While the two might seem unrelated, the combination proves to be a natural marriage, with Moon says she spent three years curating through instinct rather than rules.
Currently, Moon is working on several new series. Additionally, her exhibition State of Change will be on view at the Bolinas Museum in Bolinas, California, from 30 March to 2 June and her exhibition The World to Come will be on view at the Michigan Museum of Art from 27 April to 28 July.