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Say cheese curds: State Fair champion animals celebrated with fine art photograph

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The Minnesota State Fair broke a long tradition this year. A photographer was selected for this year’s commemorative art for the first time.

A man stands for a portrait at the fair.
Photographer R.J. Kern poses for a photo at on the Minnesota State Fair Grounds.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

R.J. Kern has worked for National Geographic, and animals are among his favorite subjects. He put together a meticulous composite of last year’s champion livestock in a makeshift hay bale studio to celebrate the Great Minnesota Get-Together. He spoke with MPR News’ Tim Nelson about how he produced the State Fair’s commemorative art for 2019.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

R.J. Kern: Think 24 animals, all supreme champions in their own kind. A dozen pairs, male and female, looking at the camera. I think the photograph pays homage to the cultural roots of the fair. It was about who has the best breeding animals. If you go back to the very first State Fairs and that was just about the time when photography was invented. 

Tim Nelson: These expositions seem built for photography. I'm surprised that it took this long to make that link.

Kern: You bet. I mean the fair is a very visual place. There's so much going on in terms of wacky T-shirts and bright lights and food and amazing animals. So, it definitely is fodder for interesting photographs, street photography and fine art photography alike.

A colorful portrait of a goose.
Photographer R.J. Kern showed off some of his animal portraits at the Minnesota State Fair on Aug. 29, 2019.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Nelson: Tell me about a little bit about your history. 

Kern: I currently have show up at Burnet Fine Art & Advisory through the end of the month for the series called The Best of the Best, which showcases the supreme champion animals [from the 2018 Minnesota State Fair]. And I was really interested in exploring both the roots of photography with salt printing, a traditional photographic process and merging the old and the new with these animals.

Nelson: How did you do this particular composition?

Kern: It was months of coordination, it was weeks of planning and 12 days of photographing. We constructed a studio on the fairgrounds for all 12 days and as soon as the animals were judged, they were escorted to the studio and we had basically everything all laid out exactly where the animals would stand. It was very much of a celebration of their win. You can think of this as the animal Oscars. And this was the after-party photo session. Then began the hard work of merging everything into one single photograph.

Most of photography in the agricultural realm are taken from the side, to showcase the loin for example. In this particular piece, they're looking at the camera. These are portraits of the winners.