Out to Pasture: On view at Gallery 360 now through May 28

R.J. Kern brings a lighting kit and wellingtons with him into the field, giving the humble subjects of his pastoral photographs a luminescent quality as only an ‘animal fame maker’ could. In order to gain insight into his work, we’ve asked him to share a little about the process of capturing these remarkable images.

360: How long have you been a photographer, are you formally trained or self-taught?

R.J: I’ve been taking pictures with intent since 1995. I started my photography business in 2006. I took a few classes in high school and in college. I do enjoy workshops, however most of my hands on learning has been self-taught.

360: Did you grow up in a remote area? How did you come to photograph landscapes and the farm animals who inhabit them?

R.J: I wish I had roots to a farm. My family moved around when I was growing up, as my father was in the military. But I spent much of my childhood outside, roaming the woods of North Carolina and Washington state. It wasn’t until I started studying paintings in fancy museums by the likes of Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Sidney Cooper, William Holman Hunt, John Everett Millais, Rosa Bonheur that I really begin to focus scenes depicting the normal, rendered extraordinarily. Finding beauty in the common brings me joy. Plus it is hard to take myself too seriously outside in rubber boots chasing after sheep.

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360: The series ‘The Unchosen Ones’, for which you were awarded a 2016 MN State Arts Board Artist Initiative grant, informs the ‘Out to Pasture’ series currently on display at Gallery 360. Can you talk about the common threads between the two?

R.J: Exploring ideas of home, ancestry, and the sense of place remains key to my work. Linking the work from the Divine Animals: The Bovidae was important to me. Yet, sheep, goats, ram don’t wander the Minnesota countryside like they do in parts of Europe where my ancestors are from. I needed access to the animals to photograph them. The county fair portraits in The Unchosen Ones opened doors not only to the animals for Out to Pasture, but the communities that support them.  I am drawn to explore the connection of people to their home places and have enjoyed meeting new people. To experience the home pasture of these animals has taken me throughout Minnesota, and I really have enjoyed that process of getting to know my new “home” state with a purpose in mind.

I think we all know the feeling of being unchosen. Through empathy and compassion, engaging with youth in society creates promise for our future. I often ask the kids as I photograph to “show me what next year’s grand champion might look like.” I can often see the lightbulb flicker on in their heads, with hope for the future. That’s really special to me.

360: There are a lot of relationships in your work, between animals and their caretakers, and the landscapes they inhabit. What would you like the viewer to take away from your work, in regards to these relationships?

R.J: Knitted into my use of bovidae in my series Out to Pasture are underlying layers of symbolism, myth, and cliche. I think about these as I travel to my photo shoots. My camera helps me to interpret and order the world. It helps me to see relationships: animals to land, people to animals, people and animals to work. The lens and film plane- and now the digital file— help me order the world, connecting one thing to another.

I am an environmental photographer, but I am not drawn to oil spills, unsightly encroachments, or scars on the land, but I am looking for the things humans effect nonetheless. I am interested in their domesticity and want to ask the audience the question: what makes a goat, sheep or ram? How have we influenced their evolution? What are they becoming? The question concerns why and how we have created this relationship with other species is a relationship that reflects intensively on humanity.

360: In a previous conversation, you mentioned that you are interested in how grazing animals sustained your ancestors. Can you tell us a little more about that connection and how it influences your work?

R.J: Our kids love cheese and milk, warm wool blankets and socks. I can only imagine the source of this affinity is deep in their DNA, my DNA, and my parents’ DNA and so on. Our ancestors even in the 1800s, food sources in the northern latitudes that were calorie rich were a challenge to find. Yet these animals drove the economy for generations and were sources of income and sustenance. They are often depicted in the paintings made during that era.  Many of scenes depicted the normal, rendered extraordinarily. The compositions caught my eye, the visual narratives drew me in, and the quality of the lighting made me want to study the work again and again. Rich symbolism and thoughtful placement of subjects made me think deeper about societal issues we experience today – where cultural identity, landscape, and place collide.

360: When taking these photographs, how do you get the animals to stay where you want them? Do you have to enlist the help of the caretakers to gain trust? Have you become an animal whisperer through this work?

R.J: Patience and a sense of humor goes a long way in this type of work, I have found. You can’t pose an animal and have to be prepared for anything when working with them. Safety for all is number one, which is why I often enlist the help of the owners to assist me in the pasture.

Weeks of planning, coordination, and patience goes into creating one image. To capture these animals against the pastoral landscape they inhabit, I rely on assistance from locals and often their herd dogs in larger pastures.

360: These Images are very pastoral, do you intend there to be an emphasis on the landscape or the livestock? Or is the point more that they are inseparable from each other?

R.J: Many of scenes in landscape paintings from 1850 depicted the normal, rendered extraordinarily. The compositions caught my eye, the visual narratives drew me in, and the quality of the lighting made me want to study the work again and again. Rich symbolism and thoughtful placement of subjects made me think deeper about societal issues we experience today – where cultural identity, landscape, and place collide.

As family farms dwindle and rural areas become corporate monocultures, the relationship in how we see animals in a place, how we shape that place, and how it shapes us concerns me. I look forward to exploring that further in my work and hope the messages resonate with audiences.

 

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