Drawing on themes and compositions that recall 19th-century paintings of pastoral scenes, photographer R. J. Kern’s work—now on view in New York City—explores the nature of humanity as seen through man’s relationship with domesticated animals. In three interconnected series, ”Divine Animals: The Bovidae,” “Out to Pasture,” and “The Unchosen Ones,” Kern examines humanity’s impact on these creatures—as well as the important role they played in the evolution and growth of Kern’s own family.
Kern’s series “Divine Animals: The Bovidae” is a result of the photographer’s personal investigation into his ancestral roots in Ireland, Germany, Norway, and Iceland. As he journeyed through these different countries, Kern came to the realization that the existence of goats and sheep dictated whether or not generations of his family would flourish or fade. Providing both sustenance and income over centuries, these animals played a key role in the survival and success of Kern’s predecessors.
With sweeping shots of richly saturated landscapes—verdant greens and deep, royal blues—the series depicts the animals roaming freely through their natural environment. Inspired by painters such as John Everett Millais and Albert Bierstadt, Kern imbues his images with a tranquil, luminous quality that gives his animal subjects a nearly divine presence. Taking their cue from the photographer, who treats the animals with such reverence, the viewer is primed to look more closely at the subjects and consider how harmoniously they inhabit their landscapes. In one of the photographs from “Divine Animals,” a goat stretches its lustrous body across the surface of a rock, mimicking the curved form of the stones around it, fusing with the landscape; in another, a ram stands on a pedestal of greenery, literally elevated and presented to the viewer as an object worthy of appreciation.
And yet, Kern’s photographs also acknowledge the animals’ more quotidian use. Along with their calm presence, Kern notes that he was drawn to “their innate functional beauty,” their simultaneous manifestation of “both the banal and the mystical.” The animals are presented with respect, and yet Kern does not hide their domestication: often collars or bells are visible in his shots. His subjects, Kern asserts, are remarkable because they symbolize both the purity and magnificence of the natural world as well as their practical use in farming and agriculture.
In contrast to the pastoral scenes in “Divine Animals,” Kern’s series “The Unchosen Ones” features his animal subjects within a man-made context: the county fair. Photographed at animal contests across the state of Minnesota, “The Unchosen Ones” also differs from his other work in that it introduces the animals’ human handlers. Furthermore, despite the proud stances of the images’ subjects, Kern did not photograph the first-prize winners at these fairs: instead, as the series title suggests, these animals and their handlers lost. “We all know what it is like to be ‘unchosen,’” he says. “Maybe for a job, for love, for an exhibition. But what does it look like?”
With this series, Kern also makes a statement about humanity’s impact on the future of a species. Winning first prize at fairs like this grants the victor more than a pretty ribbon—often these animals are selectively bred. This direct human intervention has shaped the development of various species over centuries. And yet, as Kern discovered, the animals likewise transformed his own family history.
Unlike many wildlife photographers who focus on the devastating human impact on the natural world, Kern’s work offers a different, but no less significant, thesis: how have humans shaped and molded these creatures over centuries, and how have these animals impacted our development in turn? Commenting on this strange symbiosis, Kern says, “I am looking for the things humans effect…why and how we have created this relationship with other species is a relationship that reflects on humanity.” The pastoral environment and man-made surroundings evince the same point—humanity has shaped its surroundings as much as they have shaped us.