Chickens!

Anyone who spends time with my wife and I know that we have a real, weird, thing for chickens. We totally love the funky little buggers. We think that they are cute, hilarious – especially their odd vocalizations, noble and super tasty when stewed with dumplings.  We can be mid sentence in a very serious conversation but if we find one of those feathered guys in our vision somewhere we will promptly proclaim: “Chicken!” with a huge grin on our stupid faces. Yeah, I warned you about us.

So when I got two assignments lately to photograph chickens I was thrilled. The first was a story about the people at a small farm in Berthoud, not that far from where I live, that teaches people in the burgeoning urban homestead movement how to process their poultry. It’s usually chickens but lots of people are keeping ducks and turkeys too. This day it was just chickens. It was great to see that there was a whole family who was learning how to embrace the circle of life.





It’s been very important to me to know where my food comes from and to respect the sacrifices made for my dinner table. Seeing how the Rameys honor the birds was great to see as was the way that the people taking their class did as well.

Later on in the summer I did work on an article about a family who owns Cottonwood Creek, a pasture chicken farm out on the eastern plains of Colorado. Pasture raised is when the birds have full time access to open land to scratch, peck and eat anything that their little hearts desire. That means lots of bugs, worms and plants: a properly balanced chicken diet the way that nature designed. If you get your eggs at the store and it says “free range” that really is just a marketing term that says that the chickens live in doors but have access to a space outside the huge building for them to walk around in. It doesn’t say how big or wild the space is or much else. “Free range” is essentially the same as “never having seen the sun” chickens only you pay more for the label.

 

Matt Kautz and his family own about 60 acres where their hens roam in rotation so that now mobile roost stays on one plot for more than a week or so and many plots stay fallow to allow the vegetation and bug life to recuperate and be ready for the next roost to roll in.

The children regularly help out taking care of their 5000 hens along with collecting the eggs every day. The kids think that they have 5000 pets to cuddle with.

The hens quickly learn that they roost is where they sleep at night which keeps them safe from predators.

The best part was being able to watch all the hens just being, well, chickens in their natural environment. If you have never seen this you are missing out. Chickens are essentially forest ground dwelling birds and to run around in the grass and brush hunting for bugs is what they are meant to do.

Getting down to chicken level to photograph the hunting hens was amazing. Since they are the descendants of dinosaurs it wasn’t hard to lose sense of scale and see them as tiny dinos making their way through primordial forests. I refer to the above image as “Jurassic Chicken”.

2 in 1, or: my visual Gemini life

My work for the last few years has developed this neat-o split personality. I do portraits and I do reportage. Sometimes I get to do that for the same assignment which is to me very cool.

I do a lot of business profiles and to me it’s important to not only make the head dude/dude-ette look cool but also, if at all possible to show the people who work there who don’t wear the fancy suits. When you realize that the big guy that you are photographing has maybe ten minutes to spend with you, ya need organization and the ability to make a lot happen in no time with no fuss. That’s when I drag in all the cases of lights and stands and impressive looking stuff. I make a plan which usually consists of  2-3 different looks in one general area so that I can be as efficient as possible. I usually figure that I really only have five minutes to get “John Bigbooty, President of Megacorp, with their new SuperWidget XL2”. Once that is done I pack up all the gee-whiz stuff and go light and mobile: one body and usually just my 24-70 which which to head back to the engineering lab where they are hard at work developing the SuperWidget XL2 PLUS.

I love these assignments as they very clearly represent my two selves: the lighting it just right meticulous me and the freewheeling “screw the technicals – this is neat-o!” me.

Case in point: I did photos at a Denver company called MMLocal who is making waves with their small batch and rather artisan pickles. It’s run by two friends who are super dudes and they were a lot of fun to shoot for the five or so minutes that I could pry them away from running their quickly growing company. BTW I really lucked out here. They look a bit a like, dressed alike that day so I make the shot sorta monochromatic by shooting them against the side of their big galvanized cooler where they ferment their sauerkraut. Made their brightly colored product stand out.

MMLocal1

Then I headed to the production facility and got this shot of one of their guys putting in a batch of pickles into the steamer for canning. Moody!

MMLocal2

Case #2. It’s a small world and I was sent to shoot my buddies at Renegade Brewing once again. Brian O’Connor their founder and head brewmeister is a heck of-a guy but with a big expansion under way is the “one armed paper hanger”.

Renegade 1

Then it was back to shoot the pirates in the brewhouse making the end result of Brian’s master plans.

Renegade 2

I love these gigs. It works all of my brain and forces me to be as creative as possible in the shortest amount of time. My head often hurts at the end of the day but I like it that way.

My right knee

If I'm out working you can tell that I'm a photographer even if I don't have a camera in my hand. Just look at my pants. You will usually see that the knees are abnormally worn; especially the right one. Even if my jeans are only a week old you will see a noticeable wear pattern on the knees from all my kneeling while making photos. A pair of jeans really only last me a few weeks before they are too beat up to wear anymore – just because the knees are gone. This is one reason why I don't wear Armani everyday. But why all the kneeling?

Well I think that many of us photograph makers, even a lot of professional ones, tend to make images from whatever their standing height is. For many images that works perfectly. But for others – not so much. So I get high angles when it works and low angles a whole lot. That means that I spend a fair amount of time on location crawling around and my right knee gets the most amount of abuse in the process.

Low angles have a lot of benefits: they clean up backgrounds, change perspective to that of a child/dog, make things like hands more dominant than faces which is great when your subject has expressive hands, it tends to make things heroic and then there are others which don't come to mind. Anyhoo they are not "straight" pictures which bore me. Sports photographers do a lot of low angles just because they are often photographing people who are wearing hats/helmets which obscure their eyes and sporting environments usually make very very cluttered backgrounds so the low angle shows you more face and less background.

So here is an example. I was photographing Air Force cadets performing a ceremony to honor the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In my usual way I got there early, great photos happen when people are preparing or in this case just standing around, and noticed how the cadets were taking turns holding the flag in a fashion that looked like a hug. The area was next to a busy street, there were loads of buildings around and the trees still don't have any leaves so the scene at eye level was not only not interesting but obscured the elements that I wanted to show clearly: the cadets and the flag. By getting in low and tight with a wide lens I got what I was seeing in my head.

Shuttle

Technicals: Nikon D700, AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8 @ f/8, 1/500th, ISO200