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Behind the scenes of the 2019 Minnesota State Fair commemorative art

R.J. Kern, whose art was unveiled Thursday at a special event on the fairgrounds, is the first photographer to be chosen as the fair’s official commemorative artist.

Minnesota State Fair Supreme Champion Pairings
Minnesota State Fair Supreme Champion Pairings from 2018, archival pigment print, 2019
R. J. Kern, courtesy Burnet Fine Art & Advisory (MN) and Klompching Gallery (NY)

Each year since 2004, the Minnesota State Fair has commissioned a Minnesota artist to create an original interpretation of the Great Minnesota Get-Together. It’s a big job to make a single work of art that will capture the essence of an event rich in history and tradition, an economic powerhouse ($268 million in 2018), something near and dear to Minnesota hearts and one of the few places where everyone feels they belong and are welcome.

The art must also have broad appeal and raise money for the fair. Sales of limited-edition signed prints, posters and other merchandise support educational programs and improvements to the buildings and grounds. And, like any commissioned work of art, it must make the patron happy.

The first 15 artists included painters, illustrators, muralists, printmakers and a collage artist. R.J. Kern, whose art was unveiled last night at a special event on the fairgrounds, is the first photographer to be chosen as the fair’s official commemorative artist. Kern is an award-winning fine-art photographer whose work has been shown in exhibitions around the world. In Minnesota, he’s represented by Burnet Fine Art & Advisory.

Kern also has history with the fair. He’s been accepted into the Fine Arts Exhibition three times. Last year, he won both the First Glance Award from the Minnesota State Fair Foundation and the Great State of Minnesota Award from Minnesota Citizens for the Arts. He hopes to get in again this year, but being the commemorative artist is no guarantee. Like everyone else who submitted, he’ll just have to wait to hear what the jury decides.

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Shown above, “Minnesota State Fair Supreme Champion Pairings from 2018” features Kern’s portraits of the top male and female open-class exhibition winners in several categories. Kern photographed them two-by-two moments after their wins, then created a composite image. Standing still (momentarily), looking calm and serene (they weren’t), these are the best of the best of 2018’s turkeys and ducks, chickens and geese, rabbits and draft horses, sheep and goats, llamas and pigs, cattle and stock dogs.

We spoke with Kern on Wednesday, with one of his limited-edition prints resting between us on a table. This interview has been edited and condensed.

R.J. Kern
MinnPost: You’re the first photographer to be commissioned by the State Fair to create the commemorative art. Why do you think there hasn’t been a photographer before?

R.J. Kern: If you step back and look at photography as an art form, we’re relatively new. It’s taken a while for photography to gain acceptance in the art world. The National Gallery of Art just started collecting photography in 1994. Before, if you were a photographer, you were an editorial or newspaper photographer. Ansel Adams was commissioned by Congress. The photography legends were hired by Life magazine and the New York Times. They were never in art galleries. That’s changing very quickly.

MP: Why this particular photograph?

RJK: Animal husbandry is the roots of the fair. Who had the best ram to mate for breeding purposes? This wasn’t about showmanship. These were working animals, This was a business. The supreme champion was a mating animal, one you would lend out to other folks.

That’s where the Minnesota State Fair started, with the animals. Today it’s the music and food. The fair liked it when I wanted to focus on the animals. Let’s remind people that this is what kickstarted it all.

If you look at the origins of photography and fairs, they happened at the same time. Animal judging started in the mid-19th century. The first state fair in the United States was in New York in 1841. The 1851 World’s Fair [in London’s Hyde Park] was the first photography exhibition. Some of the first photographs were of prize-winning animals. Champion bulls and champion horses.

I really wanted to keep the focus on the animals. What would the Great Minnesota Farm Family look like? Here’s my artistic interpretation.

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MP: Tell us a bit about the process of photographing all of these animals.

RJK: We constructed a studio on the fairgrounds for 12 days. It was right by the horse barns. It was like a wedding reception tent. The owners were notified in writing that if their animal was selected as supreme champion, it would be part of the commissioned art. The owners were all supportive. They are also very particular about how their animal is photographed. Some of these animals are auctioned off. Some are sold for a lot of money. They want to put the animal in the best light possible.

As soon as the animals were judged, within five to 10 minutes, they were escorted to the studio by their handlers and owners. I had everything mapped out ahead of time, including where the animals would stand. Most of the images were shot in periods of five minutes.

This all took place over 12 days — what the fair called “12 days of fun.” It really was fun! They rolled out the red carpet. It took 12 days because they can’t manage all of those animals at the same time in the barns. The bull and dairy cow were on the last day. The horses and dogs were on the first day

MP: What were some of the challenges?

RJK: The animals were coming right off the supreme champion ceremonies. They were excited. It’s like a beauty pageant, so they’d been groomed and detailed all day long. They’ve been waiting in line and held. That’s a lot of stimulus. Plus they were stressed. The dairy cow had to be milked. The animals had to relieve themselves and cool themselves off. The dogs were hyped up. They had just gotten off agility trials.

You can’t pose an animal. You have to have patience and a sense of humor. You have to stay persistent and try again.

Detail #1. Supreme Champion Geese and Herding Dogs
R. J. Kern, courtesy Burnet Fine Art & Advisory (MN) and Klompching Gallery (NY)
Detail #1. Supreme Champion Geese and Herding Dogs
For some animals, we had to make a conscious decision. With goats, there are dairy goats and meat goats, with champions for each. I asked the superintendent to choose. For the draft horses, the supreme champions are a stallion, a gelding and a mare. Just for pure safety and logistics reasons, you don’t put a stallion in close quarters with a mare. Stallions have one-track minds. We used the gelding and the mare.

MP: Which animals were the hardest to photograph?

RJK: I was expecting the dogs to be the easiest, but they were the hardest. Herding dogs are working dogs. They’re not lap dogs. Getting them to sit still … They were pretty juiced up. The draft horses had also been performing. They’re like champion athletes after a big contest.

MP: Which animals were the most fun to photograph?

RJK: It’s a toss-up between the ducks and the llamas. They were the most alert and just comical. Easy to be around. The pigs were drama queens and kings. They have a one-track mind and a sharp sense of smell. They’re smelling all around, and they’re big animals.

MP: How did you create the final image?

RJK: The compositing process took about 80 hours. We wanted to make sure it looked like all the animals were there at the same time in the same place. They were all in the same place, but not at the same time, for safety reasons and logistics reasons. It was important to have a neutral backdrop that was not distracting, so we used the straw bales.

MP: How would you like people to respond to your photograph?

RJK: I think it will put a smile on people’s faces. That’s a step in the right direction. I think it will appeal to a wide age demographic. I think kids will really enjoy it. I know the owners of the animals are very excited to have their animals featured. For them, this is a document.

If you look at a lot of traditional agricultural photographs of animals, they’re all from the side, so you can see the structure of the animal — the loin, the gait, the posture. But these are portraits. They’re looking at us. I hate to anthropomorphize, but they kind of look like people.

“Minnesota State Fair Supreme Champion Pairings from 2018” will be on display in the Fine Arts Building for the duration of the 2019 Minnesota State Fair.

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