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If and when he found a chickenhouse
that he liked, there was still a great
amount of work involved. He had to make
sure that all the characteristics of a great
chickenhouse photograph were there. He
had to spend at least a day figuring out
angles, making charts, checking positions,
readying his gear. And he had to make
sure that it was OK with the owner of the
Sometimes these people were hard to
find. He had spent many an afternoon
tracking down owners in backfields or in
taverns. And sometimes they weren't easy
to deal with.
"You from the government, ain't
you?" one owner asked him. "I'll tell
you right now, I ain't been feeding my
chickens anything that won't make them
This was in a tavern in the Northwest.
The owner was drunk, leaning over the
bar, surrounded by chickenhouse workers.
They all laughed at him.
"What you going around taking pic
tures of chickenhouses for? Can't find a
"This is my job. I take pictures of
chickenhouses. It's for a book."
"No kidding. Well, I heard of stranger
things. Be sure to' spell the name right.
There's two n's in McLennock."
Once inside the chickenhouses, his
work was not over. "Do you realize," he
wrote in a letter to his brother the lawyer,
"that there are over fifteen thousand
chicks hatched in a day in some of these
houses. FIFTEEN THOUSAND PER
DAY! I have to really watch my step."
"Listen," his brother wrote back, "about
these chickenhouses. I understand that
this is an interesting thing you're doing.
Fifteen thou per is a hell of a lot of chick
ens. But don't you think it's time you did
something with a little more security? Not
everyone shares your fascination with
chickenhouses. The book might sell only
to those people whose houses you in
cluded, or whose names you spelled right.
He could not think why these people would be in
terested in watching him take pictures of an old
chickenhouse. He was sure that there was some
thing that they would rather be doing. All this pub
licity, he thought, all the pictures that have been
taken of them have really screwed them up. One
thing I'll never do, he thought, is take pictures of
Indians. He watched them watch him. Besides, he
thought, it's been done before.
I know this guy who's starting his own
photography lab. With a little commit
ment, I could get you on. He's seen your
work, says he loved Wells. But this chick
enhouse thing. . ."
But this did not bother him. In fact, he
was used to it. Long ago he had made up
his mind to do the things that interested:
him the most. He. had decided that he.
would never be able to enjoy the same
things that his brother and his friend with
the photography lab and almost everyone
else did. It made him happy to think about
this, how independent and spontaneous
he could be. He thought often and with
scorn of the things that he did not have to
have: breakfast before nine, new types of
toothbrushes, suits with thinner than last
year's lapels. A jet-propelled window
washer for that hard-to-reach second
story was to him the funniest thing in the
His work was progressing, but slowly.
He calculated that he had about half of
the stills arid copy that he needed for the
book. He was going to run out of money
somewhere in the Southwest. He con
tacted some artist friends in Santa Fe to
see if they could organize a show. Santa
Fe, it seemed, was ready for a glimpse of
chickenhouses. A show was arranged for
early next month. -
Since not many chickens were raised in
the Southwest, he spent days traveling
before he found a house worth photo
graphing. It was near Albuquerque, on a
reservation. The Indians were friendly
enough; they were quite used to people
coming through the reservation to take
pictures of their lives. The chickenhouse
was extraordinary, unlike any he had ever
seen. But when he went out to photograph
: it, many Indians came out to watch and
help. He had no money to pay them and
refused their offers politely. But they
wouldn't leave, and it made him uncom
fortable. He could not think why these
people would be interested in watching
him take pictures of an old chickenhouse.
He was sure that there was something
they would rather be doing. All this pub
licity, he thought, all the pictures that
have been taken of them have really
screwed them up. One thing I'll never do,
he thought, is take pictures of Indians.
He watched them watch him. Besides, he
thought, it's been done before. .
The show in Santa Fe was a surprising
success. There had been a write-up in the
paper, and after he arrived he had given
an interview to the Santa FeArts Journal.
The interviewer was an enthusiastic man
with shoulder length hair who "loved his
work," he had said. The interview came
out in the paper the day after the show
started. It was not long, and the inter
viewer described the show as "A wonder
fully stark and beautifully photographed
vision of chickenhouses that really are
America's own. "All this from the
man who brought us the book that cap
tured the true essence of self-reliance: the
original and simple Wells of America."
He soon grew tired of signing copies of
Wells and talking about the capacity of
the average-sized chickenhouse. He was
eager to get out of Santa Fe, to complete
his project. On the third day of the show,
he had to have a break. He left his post at
the end of the exhibit and went over to a
park across the street. He sat for a long
time on a bench, shading the sun from his
eyes with a copy of Wells. Two women
sat beside him on the grass, eating lunch
out of plastic carryout cartons. The
women talked loud and fast, and he tried
to ignore them, but he couldn't.
"You won't believe what Jerry did,"
said the woman closest to him. "I told
you we went on vacation last month. To
Houston and New Orleans. We took the
kids with us this time. We spent one
night in Little Rock with Alma. Well,
anyway, I must have told Jerry three
dozen times to call the paper and have
them cut off the subscription while we
were gone. We were gone for almost three
weeks, you know."
He listened. He winced. It's the details
I can't stand, he thought.
"Well, he forgot," the woman said.
"You're kidding," said the other
woman. "We always cut ours off when
we go anywhere. Even for the weekend.
Ever since the trampoline got stolen."
He sat there, listening, but he didn't
want to hear anymore. It was hot and he
was there on the bench by himself. He
felt the discomfort spread and wanted to
shout at the women for all the uneasiness
they had caused him. With their details
and their newspaper subscriptions. But
he couldn't. He couldn't look over at
them. He looked through Wells, but that
didn't help. He thought about chicken
houses, but that didn't help either.
Thursday, November 10, 1983 Literary Supplement 7