What Time Tells – Review of “The Unchosen Ones: Portraits of an American Pastoral” by R. J. Kern

We have all been there. Hope. Ambition. Dreams. Hard Work. The Moment. And then, disappointment. For whatever reason, sometimes justly and sometimes not, we did not get selected, recognized, rewarded. We didn’t do anything wrong. We simply did not do something right enough.

The Unchosen Ones: Portraits of an American Pastoral” by R. J. Kern
Published by MW Editions / Artbook | D.A.P., 2021
review by W. Scott Olsen

There is nothing tragic in these moments. They are necessary for growing up, for developing humility and empathy, for becoming humane. But that does not mean they are easy. 

For photographer R. J. Kern, these are moments of compassion and sympathy. Revisited four years later, they are moments of illumination.

R. J. Kern – “Rylee and Nelly, Clay County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”

Kern’s book, The Unchosen Ones is a collection of compassionate, insightful, beautiful portraits. And the book is made even more striking because of a second look.

Kern, whose work for this project appeared in National Geographic, made portraits of boys and girls who had raised and groomed animals for competition in a state fair. To be clear, to prepare an animal for competition is no afternoon project. Exhibitors work year-round to get the animals ready, and nearly around the clock during the fair. Training, grooming and presentation are everything. For farm kids, getting a ribbon or medal at the state fair is a defining success.

However, despite all the work, the kids in this collection did not win. There is no thrill of victory. What about the heart and soul of the second place contestant, the third, the last place, Kern asked? What can their images reveal?

R. J. Kern – “Emma and Ethan with sheep, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”

The Unchosen Ones is not a collection of hand-held shots during the state fair. These are posed and poised, well-lit and framed. Each image is given a technical and aesthetic love. Looking at them is an exploration into a cultural ethos – the American pastoral, indeed.

But, despite the elegance of each portrait, the genius of the book is something else. Four years after the initial set of portraits, Kern got it into his head to go revisit his subjects, to see how they have grown and changed, and to photograph them again, in nearly the exact same pose, with (if possible) the same animals. The images in this book are pairings. And if one image opens a window, the pairing walks us outside. Two insightful images, and the implied/perceived distance between them, make this, frankly, an important book.

R. J. Kern – “David with Sheep and Grandpa, Pastoral Study, 2020”

In his introduction to the book, Kern says, “The Unchosen Ones began with a visit to a quintessentially American event, the state fair. I was in Minnesota, where I live, which still has a strong community of small family farms. My longstanding interest in animals and their connection to humans drew me to the 2015 Minnesota State Fair. For my previous project, Divine Animals: The Bovidae, I photographed goats and sheep in lush landscapes throughout Western Europe. I knew I wanted to continue photographing domesticated animals, but my ideas about a new series were still inchoate. As I was canvassing the fair looking for inspiration, I took in all the carefully tended-to animals and their owners, often young children. After the 4-H Lamb Lead show, I met the fourth-place finishers, Josilin, and her sheep, Tantor. I could see Josilin was disappointed, yet she held her head high. Her determination inspired me, and I made a portrait of them. Photographing the pair spurred me to think about my own childhood and its run-of-the mill disappointments. I had a supportive family and a fulfilling childhood, yet I still vividly remember being picked last for the basketball team and not earning a ribbon at the local science fair, even though I had tried my best. As I grew older, I knew well the feeling of not being chosen—for a job, or for love. But not being chosen for something can have a valuable upside: it can create empathy. Empathy connects people and forges bonds.”

R. J. Kern – “Cody and Gismo, Blue Earth County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”

Later, he writes, “In my own idealized world, I long for sweetness, something like heaven – a place filled with the innocence of childhood and the support of a strong community. A place that exists between the real and the imagined. As an outsider to daily agricultural life, I was influenced by preconceptions about that world. Working on The Unchosen Ones disrupted some of those notions. Living on a farm requires full-time commitment. It’s not a petting zoo. There is always work to be done – a lot of it. Rivers flood. Crops rot. Animals get sick. I wanted my photographs to capture the ephemerality of youth amid the often harsh realities of rural life. Through this project I discovered a certain cultural geography of the pastoral and created a visual meditation on rural America.”

R. J. Kern – “Hannah and Howard, Pastoral Study, 2020”

The book also contains an extraordinary introduction by Alison Nordström (independent curator and historian, former curator at the George Eastman museum and Artistic Director of the Lodz Fotofestiwal), titled “Why Photograph Animals.”

She writes, “[Kern] began The Unchosen Ones as a study of children and the animals they care for, making images of competitors at Minnesota agricultural fairs. Over time, he grew to consider these young people, and their experiences of ambition and disappointment, as they themselves grew and changed – though their animals remain the markers of both rural life and coming of age. Four years later, he returned to a project that once felt finished, and in so doing, Kern has honored, humanized, and elaborated the realities of the people he has come to know… Kern’s vision transforms these fleeting moments of failure, loss, love, and hope into permanent images and a larger story.”

R. J. Kern – “Mable and Stella, Isanti County Fair, Minnesota, 2016”

The Unchosen Ones: Portraits of an American Pastoral is a book to linger over. The photographs are beautiful. The stories they tell become more nuanced and complicated with every moment.

R. J. Kern’s work has been included in group exhibitions at the Zurab Tsereteli Museum of Modern Art (Tbilisi), the National Portrait Gallery (London), and the Yixian International Photo Festival (Anhui, China), among others, and in solo exhibitions at the Griffin Museum of Photography (Winchester, MA) and the Plains Art Museum (Fargo). National Geographic published photos from his series The Unchosen Ones and Out to Pasture in its November 2017 issue. Kern’s first monograph, The Sheep and the Goats, was published by Kehrer Verlag in 2018.

R. J. Kern – “Carlana and donkey, Pastoral Study, 2020”
R. J. Kern – “Shania and Pineapple, Ramsey County, Minnesota, 2020”

A video documentary about this project can be found here.

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