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Strike a pose, chicken

Autumn Phillips

Eighteen ducks, two geese, 21 chickens and a complete body of work.

For photographer JoAnn Baker Paul, every part of raising poultry is a step in the creative process — feeding them in the morning, cleaning the chicken coop, filling the water dishes and, finally, bringing them into the studio.

They have a symbiotic relationship, the poultry and the photographer. Baker Paul provides them with food, shelter and security, and they provide her with companionship and healing and inspiration.

She started taking photos of her poultry in the spring of 2002 on her kitchen table. She built a small studio set with a white Formica backdrop.

“I just hoped I could convey in a photograph what I saw and felt,” Baker Paul said. “And it worked. What I saw (in the chickens) was a whole range of emotions, and I also see a formal composition of light and shadow.”

She tried taking photos in the chicken coop, which was long and narrow and didn’t allow the chickens much freedom to move, but had more success obtaining her stark aesthetic in the formal studio setting. She now uses a backdrop in the upstairs of her home where she carries the chicks, ducklings and roosters for their moment in front of the camera.

“It goes beyond just the subject,” Baker Paul said. “It’s not just a chicken or a duck. They are photos of animals, but they are also portraits and also still life.”

Baker Paul has been photographing still life since her early days as a photographer in New York. Her visual philosophy was well defined, but she never found the right subject matter for her camera until she took that first photo of a chicken.

“These images mean a lot to me,” she said. “It’s a real blessing to have a merging of my two passions — my photography and my love of animals.”

Baker Paul takes her poultry portraits with a medium format Hasselblad camera that makes 2 1/4-inch square negatives. It’s a camera that has an almost cult following among portrait photographers.

“Back in New York, I used to be able to rent them,” Baker Paul said. Finally she had to buy her own. “The optics are so far beyond a 35 mm. They give you such incredible detail and sharpness.”

For tonight’s show, Baker Paul has framed a series of chick photos that she took in the spring of 2003. The five-photo series of two fluffy newborn chicks took less than a minute to shoot.

“The easy part is taking the photo,” she said. “The hard part is raising the birds and knowing when to shoot. Almost every picture I took (in the chick series) is wonderful. I picked out five images that kind of tell a story.”

Baker Paul said that part of the secret behind her emotional portraits of poultry is the relationship she has with each bird.

“They aren’t afraid of me,” she said. “Sometimes I almost think they like being photographed.”

To make them comfortable, she often sings to the birds. They like Led Zeppelin, she said.

“This is a humorous and serious experience at the same time and that’s what I try to convey in the photograph.”

Baker Paul came to her rural life in Steamboat Springs after years in New York City where she was a curatorial assistant for photographer Irving Penn.

“Anyone who knows his work will recognize his influence on me,” she said. “I loved his work long before I worked for him.”

She moved to Steamboat in 1987 to be near her sister, Mary Ellen Rubley. “I moved here with the intention of staying. In New York, it was all work and no personal life.

“I had to let go of a lot of the old aspirations. … But to me, it’s really an inspiration how I was able to take the chickens (elements of the Steamboat life) and make art with them.”


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