Chickens With a Surprisingly Literary Look

December 2018

Wall Street Journal
by Alexandra Wolfe

After hearing a 2007 speech by writer Michael Pollan on a friend’s California ranch about the mistreatment of farm animals, the photographer Beth Moon decided to call attention to their plight by photographing domestic poultry. Traveling to farms around the country, she was struck by how unexpectedly expressive and emotive the animals were. She paired the birds’ photographs with quotations from classic books that she felt their appearances evoked, such as Charles Dickens’s “Great Expectations.” Ms. Moon showcases the results in her new book, “Literary Chickens” (Abbeville, $35).

These chickens reminded a photographer of writing by Pushkin (‘The countess had no longer the slightest pretensions to beauty’), left, and Lord Byron (‘She walks in beauty, like the night’).
These chickens reminded a photographer of writing by Pushkin (‘The countess had no longer the slightest pretensions to beauty’), left, and Lord Byron (‘She walks in beauty, like the night’).

The birds weren’t the most patient models; when she placed them on a table to photograph, they would often run away. But when she could catch its gaze, Ms. Moon thought one Old English Game Hen looked both “princely” and “nefarious,” and she matched its portrait with a quote from Niccolò Machiavelli’s “The Prince” (1532). A Golden Sebright’s expression reminded her of a countess in Alexander Pushkin’s 1834 “The Queen of Spades.” And Ms. Moon felt that an Appenzeller Spitzhauben chicken called to mind a passage about being a poet from George Eliot’s 1870s masterpiece “Middlemarch.”

Ms. Moon found that the humble birds’ plumage inspired thoughts of grander things. “Intricate feather patterns and exotic plumage evoke a sense of glamour,” she writes. “Hardly less fascinating are their lavish combs, recalling crowns worn by nobility.”

These fowls seemed to evoke Swift (‘He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise’), left, and George Eliot (‘I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?’).
These fowls seemed to evoke Swift (‘He put this engine into our ears, which made an incessant noise’), left, and George Eliot (‘I wonder what your vocation will turn out to be: perhaps you will be a poet?’).