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Life & Work with R. J. Kern of Minneapolis

Today we’d like to introduce you to R. J. Kern.

Hi R. J., we appreciate you taking the time to share your story with us today. Where does your story begin?
The more time I spend with young people growing up on farms, and the more I learn about their plans for their futures, the more enthusiastic I am to use the tools I understand, pixels and light, to carry their stories and experiences to a broader audience.

I am an American artist whose work investigates ideas of home, ancestry, and a sense of place. My portraits focus on intimate, interdependent relationships of people, animals, and landscapes to explore how ancestry shapes identity and how myth intertwines with personal history. Increasingly, my attention has been captured by the next generation of young people, who may or may not be the future stewards of rural communities and economies.

Inspired by master landscape painters of the 19th century, I embrace the heightened expressivity of natural and artificial lighting techniques. I adopt historical and current photographic processes to draw sharper connections between traditional and modern farming routines. While illuminating the fleeting beauty of youth, I probe the current realities of agricultural practices, aspiring to enhance awareness and interest in the changing face of American pastoral life.

I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a smooth road?
As a parent of two children, my time, energy, and resources must be prioritized. I rely on the support of grants, print and book sales, and commissions, rarely predictable from an income stream perspective. I have found great value in creating and marketing limited-edition books and portfolios timed with exhibitions. Attending portfolio reviews to share work and gain feedback has proven valuable in engaging with various collectors, gallerists, curators, editors, and publishers. I find myself in good company with mentors and friends that have helped my journey. And I enjoy taking workshops to learn new skills.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I consider myself a thriving artist working towards my’ mid-career.’ I have been successful in my work, gaining acceptance in museums and educational institutions, including the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Museum of Fine Art Houston, and the Center for Creative Photography. Outside institutional walls, I have focused in the last 3 years with the intent of engaging communities with my work outside the art institution, including historical societies in Minnesota, county fairs in greater Minnesota, the Minnesota St Paul airport, and the Minnesota State Fair.

The Unchosen Ones series features portraits of future farmers in America’s heartland. My subjects are 4-H members, each of whom spent a year raising an animal and then entered it into a 4-H competition where they are judged based on knowledge, the structure of the animal’s anatomy, and showmanship.

The Unchosen Ones project began with a visit to a quintessentially American event, the state fair. These events are well-attended, and in 2019—the year I was the Commemorative Artist— the attendance over 10 days was over 2 million people. In the Midwest of the United States, in the state of Minnesota, where I live, there is a strong community of small family farms. My longstanding interest in animals and their human connection drew me to the 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 undeveloped. 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 inspired me to think about my childhood and its typical disappointments. I had a supportive family and a fulfilling childhood, yet I still 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 love. The more time I spend with young people growing up on farms, and the more I learn about their plans for their futures, the more compelled I feel to use the tools I understand, pixels and light, to carry their stories and experiences to a broader audience.

My second monograph, “The Unchosen Ones: Portraits of an American Pastoral,” was published by MW Editions on December 7, 2021. I’m known for lighting techniques, as well as my patience and sense of humor, especially with children and animals.

I’m most proud of being selected as the Commemorative Artist of the Minnesota State Fair in 2019 and having work published in National Geographic magazine.

What’s next?
I’ve got lots of projects in various stages that keep me busy. This summer, I am traveling to seven MN county fairs, engaging the community with a series of shows, and creating large-scale tableaux photographs with lots of lighting, kids, and animals.

Contact Info:

  • Website:
  • Instagram: kernphoto
  • Facebook: /rjkern
  • Twitter: kernphoto

Image Credits

R. J. Kern

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