They came, they clucked and they conquered. Get the story behind these absurd portraits and how they came to be.
This June, Smithsonian magazine’s special food issue features a story about how chickens have become, as writers Jerry Adler and Andrew Lawler put it, “the ubiquitous food of our era.” If fitting such a wide-ranging topic into one article wasn’t challenging enough, the next hurdle became how to illustrate a story that spans 10,000 years and several continents. Ultimately, chief photography editor Molly Roberts asked Timothy Archibald, a San Francisco-based editorial and commercial photographer, to humor her. What if you were to take portraits of raw chickens, she asked, dressed up as some of the most famous leaders in history? The nine photographs, shown here, are the astounding results of the experiment.
“I think that sometimes when you get an idea that seems so far-fetched, you can kind of approach it with this freedom, because you don’t really think it is going to work out,” says Archibald. “That’s what this was.” The assignment certainly fell within the photographer’s repertoire. Clients often hire Archibald to breathe fresh air into mundane objects or to somehow ground bizarre ones in the familiar. He calls his work humorous and, at times, subversive. “I knew that he could take this for the humor,” says Roberts, “and not be heavy-handed with it, but handle it seriously, so that it was more funny.” Archibald was skeptical—but game. His longtime stylist, Shannon Amos, who does props and wardrobe for his shoots, put him at ease. “She was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s no problem. I’ll hire a seamstress and get these things made to the chickens’ size. It shouldn’t be a problem at all,’ ” he says. “She treated this as if it was the most traditional assignment that has ever been.”
“I thought it was something that we could really run with,” says Amos. Of the dozen historical figures Roberts named as possible subjects, the photographer-stylist duo chose eight. The first order of business was the wardrobe. “You can’t retrofit a Halloween costume,” says Archibald. “These things needed to look believable.” For each character, Amos put together a mood board, or collage, of images. She then designed costumes, which seamstresses sewed to fit three-pound birds. Scouring costume shops and local theaters, Amos gathered accessories: a bicorn for Napoleon, a crown for Queen Elizabeth II and a headdress for King Tut. The stylist insisted that Lincoln’s top hat be vintage. “It needed to have the wear and the texture and the wrinkles,” she says.
“I think, like anything, you set up the rules to the game and then you need to play by those rules,” says Archibald. “Here, we wanted to see how much we could do with how little.” For example, sets were off limits. So, instead of placing Einstein in front of a blackboard or Caesar in a Roman arena, Archibald used a simple white backdrop. Through trial and error, he and Amos determined the three or so wardrobe elements, one of which really needed to be a headpiece, that clinched the character.
The actual photo shoot took place on the ground floor of Amos’ two-story loft in Emeryville, California. “We needed a studio that had a refrigerator in it,” says Archibald. The photographer set up his lights, camera, his white backdrop and an underlit table with a Plexiglas top (notice: the reflections of the birds’ legs in the photographs). Days earlier in his studio, he had tested his lighting technique on a tomato soup can. Meanwhile, Amos created an assembly line of sorts to prep the chickens. At the kitchen sink, she would remove a store-bought chicken from its plastic bag and pat it dry. Next, she perched the chicken on a large Red Bull can. “I literally went through every soda can at the grocery store trying to figure out which one actually fit up the cavity of the chicken the best,” says Amos. After the bird air-dried a bit, she would hand-sew, pin or tape on its attire. The headpieces were shot separately. The stylist devised a way to sit a chicken on a suspension device to give it what looked like a vertical spine. “It looked anthropomorphic,” says Archibald. “It almost looked like the legs were supporting this body.” Obviously, all cans and wires were edited out of the photographs to achieve the freestanding effect.
What was key, according to both stylist and photographer, was experimenting with the birds’ body language. Every angle and subtle movement of a chicken’s wings or legs could convey a different personality and, ultimately, help sell the character. Since paintings of Napoleon often show him with his hand tucked into his waistcoat, a formal stance in 18th- and 19th-century portraiture, Amos positioned the wing of a chicken in Napoleon garb the same way. “With Julius Caesar, we wanted it to look noble and regal,” says Archibald. “With Jackie O, we wanted it to look like a paparazzi photo taken as someone drove past her on the street corner.”
Amos was convinced that to pull off King Tut the chicken had to be spray-painted gold. It was an inspired idea, but easier said than done. “The first coat of gold that went on looked really seamless, but within 20 minutes, the flesh of the chicken started reacting to the chemicals in the spray paint and began to droop on its frame,” she says. There was need for speed. The chickens wept, or sweat, almost through their clothes. “And they are not the most pleasant smell after 30 minutes under some hot lights,” Amos adds.
Roberts considers the portraits a success because the historical figures are instantly recognizable. “You don’t have to put too much thought in putting it together,” she says. “It is just a quick visual hit that makes you laugh and encourages you to read the story.”
In total, Amos purchased some two-dozen chickens for the two-day shoot. She inspected them for broken wings and discolored skin, weeding out those with imperfections and those with disproportional bodies. With some characters, she had a certain body type in mind. Queen Elizabeth, for instance, had to be plump. “There was definitely a lot of ogling at naked chickens,” she says, with a laugh.