R. J. Kern – The Unchosen Ones

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Winning a competition is surely the goal of the participants. If the outcome is not what one expected, disappointment is often the result. When one is very young and has raised a special animal for a competition at a county fair, this emotional roller coaster can be most intense. Pride and determination collide with having to learn to live with the reality that we can’t always come out on top in life, and that success can be gauged in many other ways as well. This coming-of-age process, set in the rural environment of Minnesota, is effectively and elegantly narrated in this photobook by R. J. Kern. One is also reminded of similarly noble and historically valuable rural documentation projects by Disfarmer and others.

In 2016 Kern started to photograph kids and their animals that were not the top choices of the judges. Of course, to us as outsiders all those kids and their animals are beautiful, and the criteria that caused the judges not to place them higher totally escape us. But the kids being photographed are perhaps oblivious to the larger picture at those moments. We see certain feelings expressed in those environmental portraits taken immediately after the competitions. While the companion animals assume their usual stoic “show” stances, their young human friends show a whole range of emotions, from disappointment and sadness all the way to defiance and a determination to do better at the next show (images shown on the left side of each double page). A studio-like setup provided a certain amount of formality and continuity for the situations and the entire project.

Four years later the photographer visited the same kids again and had them participate in similar environmental portraits, with animal companions or other elements important to their lives at that time (always on the right-hand side on the sample pages below). We can observe certain amounts of growth, both physical and social, since their contexts have expanded, while their commitment to small-family-farm life in the American Midwest can still be observed. Animals are still important to them, but so are other activities. This second series of environmental portraits is marked by expanded horizons – we can see more of what is around each of them as well as what other interests some of them have developed.

In an essay, R. J. Kern adds interesting background details. As an “outsider to daily agricultural life” he has empathically crafted a strong tribute to a budding generation that will be in charge of the continuity of such agricultural endeavors. Alison Nordström has contributed an essay entitled “Why photograph animals?” that gives us a great sense of the differences between the two series and the value of Kern’s contribution – portraying growth and potential of youngsters growing up in the harsh realities of seemingly idyllic bucolic settings where the future lives of many of them will unfold. The book, with portrait images beautifully printed at 7.5 x 9.5 inches each, concludes with an image list indicating all locations of the various county fairs and farms. A spellbinding presentation.

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Gerhard Clausing, Associate Editor of the PhotoBook Journal, is an author and photographer from Southern California.

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R. J. Kern – The Unchosen Ones

Photographer:  R. J. Kern (born in Peekskill, New York; lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA)

Publisher:  MW Editions, New York; © 2021

Essays:  R. J. Kern, Alison Nordström

Language:  English

Hardcover with illustrated dust jacket; sewn binding; 136 pages, paginated; 9.6 x 12 inches (24 x 30.5 cm); printed and bound by Pristone, Singapore; ISBN 978-1-7357629-3-7

Creative Direction, Design, Editing:  Takaaki Matsumoto, Robin Brunelle, Amy Wilkins, all at Matsumoto Incorporated, New York

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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