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By Suzanne Révy, Associate Editor
From the very beginnings of recorded time, we have evidence that humans had close and mutually beneficial relationships with other creatures. Our earliest discovered cave paintings proclaim the significance of these interactions through an overwhelming number of animal depictions. Fast-forward several thousand years and the human reverence for animals finds expression in early writing through myths, legends and biblical stories. Three recently published photography books, The Sheep and the Goats by R.J. Kern, The Shepherd’s Daughter by Clare Benson, and Amelia and the Animals by Robin Schwartz share an ancestral awe of animals in exploring intimate, inter-dependent relationships between human beings and our beastly brethren.
Investigating his pastoral and familial roots in Ireland, Germany, Norway and Iceland, Minnesota based photographer RJ Kern created portraits of sheep and goats bathed in tranquil light and posed in the verdant provinces of his ancestral homelands. The Sheep and the Goats (Kehrer, 2018) opens with a dramatic distant Norwegian fjord with a hint of two bashful sheep, their white faces and ears obscured by a scrubby light green bush in the foreground. The pictures are printed sideways, so one must leaf through the pages from top to bottom instead of side to side, which compels the reader to slow down. Kern’s luscious portraits of the sheep and goats with their placid gazes hold the viewer’s attention and bestow a serene sense of contemplation.
The title The Sheep and the Goats references a parable from the gospel of St. Matthew in which the virtuous sheep were separated from the wicked goats. Kern likewise separates the animals by dividing the book into two parts from two portfolios: Divine Animals: The Bovidae and Out to Pasture. An even, soft cadence calibrates the rhythm of this book; it is not a search for good or evil as in the parable, but a yearning to reconcile those elements of human nature. Between the book’s two sections, an essay by Lisa Volpe contextualizes Kern’s work within the history of pastoral art.
Kern is clearly influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and this book reminded me of William Holman Hunt’s colorful and detailed paintings of sheep. For example, in The Lifeguards, Lake Myvatan, Iceland Kern’s proficiency with lighting adds drama and a sense of the surreal to his pictures by creating a saturated palette reminiscent of Hunt’s deep hues. Despite the clear reference, Kern’s temperate photographs lack the overbearing religious symbolism of the Pre-Raphaelites. The gentle stares, as in Mr. Hosfos, Skagafjardarsysla, Iceland and quiet grazing, as in The Three Graces, Stearns County, Minnesota, USA feel more like a self-portraits; these animals look curious, and Kern asks, “what makes a goat, sheep or ram? How have we influenced their evolution? What are they becoming?” We might also wonder how these sheep, goats and rams altered human progress and ask what we are becoming.
As with Kern, Clare Benson returns to her roots. In the deep woods of northern Michigan and with her aging father, she investigates memory, myth and family in an introspective self-portrait in The Shepherd’s Daughter (Photolucida, 2017). The book opens with an image of a portrait on display among taxidermied heads of animals. We learn it is Benson’s mother, and she died when Benson was very young. A short anecdote about the difficulty of burying the dead in the winter, along with a natural history museum display of animals, brings notions of life and death surging to the fore in this book. The landscapes Benson photographs are far less bucolic than Kern’s. The harsh and remote forests are untamed by the agrarian cultivation of humans and appear to be the stomping grounds of hunter-gatherers.
The earliest art has been found in the caves of ancient societies. To our eyes, the cave painters appear to have revered the animals they hunted. Likewise, in Benson’s extraordinary self-portrait, the shepherd’s daughter, she stands in the snowy woods dwarfed by the weight of the head, neck and spiral antlers of a large antelope, recalling those feint cave paintings. Benson grew up in a family of generations of hunters. At times it feels like a burden, as when she carries two boars on her shoulders in harvest or confronts the violence of mankind in to see the world twice. In a diptych titled drift, her load is lightened as she floats in water with twigs fashioned to appear as angel wings. In pleiades, island, and full cold moon, she turns to night skies and still waters in meditative contemplation. There is not a sheep to be found in this collection, yet Benson shepherds us on a spiritual journey pondering the strength and fragility of all creatures through the cycles of night and day, life and death.
From the rolling hills of RJ Kern’s images, to the northern woods of Benson’s work, it seemed apt to include a book with animals in more urban environments. Robin Schwartz’s Amelia and the Animals (Aperture, 2014) is an absorbing series of portraits of the photographer’s daughter as she communes with a diverse variety animals throughout her childhood years. As in the previous books, there is a strong sense of awe for animals, but also a delight in making a connection to domestic and exotic species alike. The book cites how humans have encroached on the habitats of animals as urban centers and suburbs have spread, touching on how we should respect their needs.
The project began when Amelia was three and met a small chimp; she looked into his eyes and fell in love. Schwartz made a portrait of her daughter with the chimp, and Amelia writes, “When I look back on all the things that holding that chimp started, it amazes me.” It began a journey that would last over ten years and included trips to a variety of animal sanctuaries. As Amelia grew, the portraits became a collaboration between Amelia and her mother, sparked with references to art history and, like the previous two books, a sense of devotion to the animals. The cover image, Lorenzo, where Amelia is embraced by a bottle-feeding tiger, recalls, perhaps, the paintings of Henri Rousseau. Amelia with a small dog in Two Fridas is a charming re-creation of Frida Kahlo’s many self-portraits with animals. As Donna Gustafson points out in an accompanying essay, Leonardo’s Lady with the Ermine seems to have inspired an image titled Rooque and Nikki Nila Bean, and I can also see shades of that painting in another image called Trinity, Rebecca, Jason and Amelia.
In addition, there is a sense of abandon and free play in images such as in Kids and Reaching and a sense of myth-making in interior spaces such as New Year’s Morning. As the book progresses, readers witness Amelia’s evolution from toddler to teenager and intuit that her love for animals springs from a sense of stewardship for the creatures she grows to consider her friends and who share our precious time and place on this earth.
The Sheep and the Goats
by RJ Kern
Texts by Stuart Klipper, George Slade, Lisa Volpe
Published by Kehrer, 2018
Kern will be exhibiting his work in solo shows at Klompching Gallery in Brooklyn, NY from May 9th through June 30th, 2018, at Burnet Fine Art in Wayzata, Minnesota from July 12th through September 1st, 2018, and at the Griffin Museum of Photography in Winchester, MA in October 2018.
The Shepherd’s Daughter
by Clare Benson
Essays by Melissa Goodrich and Meg R. Jackson
Published by Photolucida, 2017
Amelia and the Animals
by Robin Schwartz
Foreword by Amelia Paul Foreman
Essay by Donna Gustafson
Published by Aperture, 2014
Feature Image: “Hazel, Geiranger Fjord, Norway” (Detail) by R. J. Kern, Courtesy of the artist and Kehrer Publishers.