R. J. Kern
|R. J. Kern|
Artist, R. J. Kern
Peekskill, New York, United States
|Education||University of Colorado Boulder, Colgate University|
R. J. Kern (born 1978) is an American artist, known for his photographs exploring identity, culture, and philosophical questions about nature and heritage through the interaction of people, animals and landscape. His work has been exhibited throughout the United States and in Canada, China, England, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Japan and Norway, at venues including the National Portrait Gallery, London, Phipps Center for the Arts, Overture Center for the Arts, Rourke Art Museum, Museum of Modern Art Tbilisi, and Yixian International Photography Festival (Anhui, China) among many. Kern has received awards and recognition from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize, the photography non-profit CENTER, and the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain, and was chosen one of PDN’s “30 New and Emerging Photographers” in 2018.
Kern's work has been showcased by PBS, The Telegraph (London), the Star Tribune, and National Geographic, with a feature of his “The Unchosen Ones” and “Out to Pasture” series. In 2018, Kehrer Verlag published Kern’s monograph, The Sheep and the Goats, which features a conversation with noted photographer Stuart Klipper and was named one of “The Most Beautiful German Books 2018” by design foundation Stiftung Buchkunst. Kern’s next monograph, The Unchosen Ones, won a 2018 Communication Arts “Award of Excellence.” Public collections holding Kern’s work include the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Plains Art Museum, the Center for Creative Photography, and the Griffin Museum of Photography.
Kern was born Robert James Kern in Peekskill, New York in 1978. He developed an interest in photography in high school, which he continued to pursue through independent studies while earning a double-major in Art & Art History and Environmental Geography at Colgate University (BA, 2000). He subsequently began working as a cartographer for National Geographic from 2000–5, while earning an MA in Human Geography at the University of Colorado Boulder (2005).
Kern worked as a commercial photographer for nearly a decade gradually turning to a fine-art career, after being inspired by a trip photographing sheep in the Irish countryside in 2012. Those images earned him exhibition attention and a grant, and would form part of his first monograph, The Sheep and the Goats (Kehrer Verlag, 2018). The grant helped fund his next series, “The Unchosen Ones,” composed of formal portraits of animals and their handlers at county-fair livestock competitions, which would form his second monograph. Kern is represented by the Klompching Gallery in New York and Burnet Fine Art & Advisory in Minnesota. He works and lives with his family in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Kern’s work focuses on the intimate, interdependent relationships of people, animals and landscape, exploring nature as a device for understanding ancestry, identity, myth, and history. He has been strongly influenced by 19th-century painters such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Sidney Cooper, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, well as by Pictorialist photography. Critics often note Kern’s use of natural and artificial lighting, and his saturated palette, thoughtful composing of subject and landscape, and attention to detail in shadows. His work has been described by various critics as lush and painterly, dramatic and surreal, ethereal, and beatific.
The images in Kern’s The Sheep and the Goats monograph comprise two bodies of work depicting domesticated animals in landscape settings. “The Bovidae: Divine Animals” series (2012–6), featuring images such as Hazel, Geiranger Fjord, Norway (2013), is set in Kern and his wife’s ancestral lands of Ireland, Germany, Norway and Iceland. In the “Out to Pasture” series (2015–7), Kern focused on “retired” show animals in natural settings in his home state of Minnesota. Curator Lisa Volpe, of Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts, wrote that the portraits suggested wisdom and self-assurance in their “unperturbed stillness.” Assessing images such as Dumb and Dumber, Freeborn County, Minnesota, USA (2016), Elly Thomas of World Photography Organisation identified their unique perspective on the contemporary meaning of pastoral. Lenscratch’s Aline Smithson wrote that Kern celebrated “animals with a painter’s eye, bringing old master lighting to the natural world.”
“The Unchosen Ones” series grew out of Kern’s interest in continuing his work locally. He found the county fair system an ideal venue to find subjects. Describing his approach, he said, “I was more interested in photographing the ‘also rans’ than the Grand Champions. We all know what it is like to be ‘unchosen’—maybe for a job, for love, or a juried group exhibition. Empathy is a key component.” The series consists of over 65 portraits of handlers and their animals that weren’t champions at ten Minnesota county fairs, stylized and made formal by a studio-style backdrop. Lenscratch’s Smithson wrote that the images such as Kenzi and Hootie, Anoka County Fair, Minnesota, 2016 (2016) “pull at the heartstrings,” capturing subjects with dignity and respect. Writer Alison Nordström noted that like the best documentary, the work “transcends the specificity of time and place.” Other critics, such as The Telegraph’s Hettie Judah, suggested that they touched on the ethics of breeding and the human ability to imagine itself separate from the natural world, or “the dwindling lifeways of small, family-owned farms” and human-animal bonds. The portraits—all collected in Kern’s second monograph, The Unchosen Ones—were widely recognized and exhibited in London (National Portrait Gallery), Japan, the Colorado Photographic Arts Center, and throughout the United States and Canada as part of the traveling show “The FENCE: A Public Photography Exhibition Series” (2016–7).
Awards and collections
Kern has been recognized with several awards and honors. For “The Unchosen Ones,” he received: CENTER’s 2017 Curator's Choice Award (First Place); Second Place at the National Gallery of Art’s 2017 International Juried Exhibition; a Silver Medal at the Royal Photographic Society’s 2017 International Photography Exhibition; and was a Finalist for the British Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize and the Renaissance Photography Prize 2017. He has also been awarded two Minnesota State Arts Board Artist Initiative Grants (2016, 2018). In 2018, Kern was chosen one of PDN’s “30 New and Emerging Photographers” and Photolucida's "Critical Mass Top 50." Kern’s work resides several permanent public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, the Plains Art Museum, the Center for Creative Photography, the Griffin Museum of Photography, Central Lakes College, and the General Mills Art Collection.
- Kern, R. J. (2018). The Sheep and the Goats, Germany: Kehrer Verlag. ISBN 9783868288353
- Kern, R. J. (2018). The Unchosen Ones, Minneapolis: R. J. Kern. ISBN 9780692105801
- Thomas, Elly. ”Divine Animals: The Bovidae by R. J. Kern, The Fence," World Photography Organisation, November 19, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Judah, Hettie. ”Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017, review – suggests we're all in need of comfort," The Telegraph, November 14, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Gear, Elizabeth Sulis. ”Mythology and the everyday collide in these images of bovidae," Feature Shoot, November 10, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Knight, Bill. “Highlights from the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize 2017 - raw emotion, not always human,” the arts desk, 16 November 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- CENTER. “CENTER Curator’s Choice Award 2017”, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- BBC. “The 2017 Royal Photographic Society competition, October 4, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Photo District News. PDN’s 30, R.J. Kern, Photo District News, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- "All-About-Photo Magazine". “R. J. Kern,” Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Scott, Gregory. “Don't miss one of the year's best art exhibits, 'Open Door' at Rosalux,” Star Tribune, December 22, 2016. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Kern, R. J. “The Unchosen” (Photographs and text by R. J. Kern), National Geographic, November, 2017.
- Strochlic, Nina. “At County Fairs, a Winning Animal Isn’t Everything” (Photographs and text by R. J. Kern), National Geographic, November, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Kern, R.J. The Sheep and the Goats (photographs by R. J. Kern with essays by Lisa Volpe, George Slade, and Stuart Klipper). Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2018.
- Klipper, Stuart. “R. J. Kern in Conversation with Stuart Klipper,” https://www.amazon.com/Sheep-Goats-R-J-Kern/dp/386828835X The Sheep and the Goats] (photographs by R. J. Kern with essays by Lisa Volpe, George Slade, and Stuart Klipper). Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2018.
- Klompching Gallery. “R. J. Kern: Stiftung Buchkunst Photobook Award,”, June 13, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Communication Arts. “Photography Annual 59,” July/August 2018. p. 100–1.
- Smithson, Aline. [http://lenscratch.com/2018/04/rj-kern/ "R. J. Kern: The Unchosen Ones", Lenscratch, April 27, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Smithson, Aline. [http://lenscratch.com/2017/11/r-j-kern-the-sheep-and-the-goats/ "R. J. Kern: The Sheep and the Goats", Lenscratch, November 22, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Walker, David. PDN’s 30, R. J. Kern, Photo District News, April 2018, p. 43. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Walker, David. "R. J. Kern segues from Weddings to Fine Art,", Photo District News, January 2018, p. 10–2. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Eler, Alicia. "A photographer captures goat losers at Minnesota county fairs," Star Tribune, May 22, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Kern, R. J. The Unchosen Ones (photographs by R. J. Kern with essays by Alison Nordström, PhD and Joe Scapanski). Minneapolis: R. J. Kern, 2018.
- Photo District News. "Three Series by R. J. Kern Show the Bonds Between Livestock, Humans and the Land," PDN Photo of the Day, Photo District News, May 23, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Volpe, Lisa. “Introduction,” The Sheep and the Goats (photographs by R. J. Kern with essays by Lisa Volpe, George Slade, and Stuart Klipper). Heidelberg, Germany: Kehrer Verlag, 2018.
- Johnson, Virginia. “On the Town: 'Triangulate' Exhibit Debuts at Dunedin Fine Art Center," exhibition review, Bay News 9, June 19, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Koslov, Geoffrey. ”Innovation from Photo Lucida 2017," Foto Relevance, May 6, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Révy, Suzanne. "The Animal Whisperers," What Will You Remember, March 27, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Abbe, Mary. “Art of the state: Minnesota State Fair celebrates a host of talented artists," Star Tribune, September 8, 2015. Retrieved August 21, 2018.
- Nordström, Alison. “Why Photograph Animals,” The Unchosen Ones (photographs by R. J. Kern with essays by Alison Nordström, PhD and Joe Scapanski). Minneapolis: R. J. Kern, 2018. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Abatemarco, Michael. winners/article_a0b424bc-0a36-5d63-8672-0cf3330c9339.html "’Zenith:’ Center's 2017 International Award Winners,” Santa Fe New American, “Pasatiempo,” December 8, 2017. Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Renaissance Photography Prize. [https://enter.renaissancephotography.org/selected-series.php “Finalists & Shortlist (Series), 2017,” Retrieved August 20, 2018.
- Photolucida (2018). "Critical Mass Top 50". Photolucida.