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R.J. Kern's "Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2016." Photo courtesy of the artist / Special to The Forum

'Everyone wants to be a winner': Photographer focuses on young farmers and their animals that didn't get top prize at the fair

FARGO — R.J. Kern didn’t grow up on a farm or around livestock, but later in life, his nomadic upbringing brought out an appreciation of sheep and goats, herded animals who adapt to where they are moved to pasture.

The photographer trained his camera on the animals for his first two major series of works and in 2016 toured county fairs of Minnesota to shoot the animals and their young handlers.

That body of work, “The Unchosen Ones,” is up at the Plains Art Museum in Fargo, and Kern discussed the show and the subjects in a gallery talk Thursday, Dec. 5.

The Minneapolis-based artist didn’t shoot the grand prize winners, but instead the runners-up and also-rans.

“Everyone wants to be a winner, but just because you’re second place doesn’t mean you’re a loser,” he says. “Often, if you fast forward 20 or 30 years, those kids that didn’t get first place, they really had to work hard; they were the ones who went on to do something really big with their life. We all know what it’s like not to be chosen for something.”

Still, he treated his subjects like winners, shooting them with studio lights and a backdrop, even if they were actually in a barn.

The 10 photos in the show may seem simple and straight-forward, but these aren’t just snapshots of kids and their pets. His use of lighting suggests it could be a fashion shoot, but the subjects bring their own narrative.

Just before clicking the trigger, he would ask the young handler, “Show me what next year’s grand champion looks like.”

“That plants a seed of hope for the future,” he explains. “This year they may have come in last, but next year, if they keep working hard, who knows, they may be grand champion.”

Kern appreciates the drive and encouragement programs like 4-H instill in young farmers and he enjoys capturing the pride they have in their animals.

This is his second major museum show, but locals may recognize his work from previous exhibits. His first show was at Fargo's Atomic Coffee on Broadway in 2014, followed by a display at the Sanford Roger Maris Cancer Center and another at Ecce Gallery.

Kern’s ties to town stem from his marriage to Moorhead native Krista Olsen Kern, whose parents, Roger and Carol, still live here.

While he cut his teeth as a wedding photographer and shooting the annual Burning Man festival, this is his first year solely professionally devoted to his art. Still, his previous experiences behind the lens helped shape how he works today.

“Any time you’re working with youth and animals, you have to have patience and a sense of humor, because there is so much you can’t control, like the schedule of a wedding day, the weather or the antics that happen at Burning Man. That’s part of exploring and being open to things we can’t control,” he says. “I’m not interested in perfect. I like messy. Life is messy. Let’s celebrate that.”

Kern will work with local area youngsters as part of Kids Quest on Saturday, Dec. 7. He’ll set up a camera and a backdrop and help children take portrait photos.

“The Unchosen Ones” will be on display at the Plains through Feb. 22, then move to the Watermark Art Center in Bemidji, Minn., in the spring and on to the Minneapolis/St. Paul Airport concourse for six months after that.