When I was a child, a man came once a year to my parents’ farm to photograph the prize cows – a different man each year – until one year the man was a woman. I was still a little girl. The woman photographer allowed me to lead the beast out into the yard for her, and calm it down, and then I watched her at work. When I was older, and farming wasn’t going so well for my parents, I looked her up, the livestock photographer, and enquired as to whether she needed someone to help with her admin. I ended up staying with her for six years – I even got paid in the end. Afterwards I set up on my own. I’d have preferred to be a farmer, but that’s not an option right now.
Livestock photography isn’t about being pretty or sentimental, it’s elite marketing. The girls are like any models – they’re displaying something which is for sale, usually nowadays on the international market. My dad doesn’t sell in England any more but his cows go to Northern Ireland, and we once sent a bull to British Columbia. The farmers who bought him were young and dreamy, they didn’t know that our bull wouldn’t be hardy for their long winter. They kept him outside! And so after paying through the nose, and quarantining and shipping him, he got ill and his business parts froze right off. You have to know what you’re doing.
A local photographer like me will take the occasional personal commission – for remembrance – for the farmer who isn’t perhaps quite such a pro. There was one family who had owned a cow called Buttercup for fifteen years, and they wanted a picture of her for the wall in their front room. I set her up in their garden, flowers all around her.
Getting an animal to pose for a photograph is definitely something you learn from experience. You’re very much on your own. You have to keep many things in mind at once. Your position and mood now, and in one hour, in two hours’ time; and the mood of the animal, the mood of the light and the weather. The speed of the animal, the length of the grass, the angle of the horizon, the colour of the beast’s hide and how it will look against the shading that provides its backdrop. I was always a shy kid, but now, when I get on a farm I have to shout at everybody to get them in order, quick sharp. A cow will only put up with something for so long and so I have to get the people in line before she gets frisky. I’ve had my own little business for five years this year. I’m twenty-two.
You have to make judgements about the animal based on the current professional standards, that is, our current ideas about the ideal body. You have to swiftly identify its faults and its beautiful parts, and to do so with tact to the owner, and while your cow still has some patience. Sometimes I have to physically move the legs to get a more flattering angle. You can’t do the same thing for every cow. Sometimes you have a cow who is unsure about being photographed, and she might fall on her feet. Or, when you’re behind the camera, you see that she’s leaning on an angle because her feet have been arranged in a stance which she wouldn’t have chosen herself. It doesn’t make for a good photograph – her body lours over the camera; she looks like she’s toppling on you! So I made this little plinth – it’s just a block of wood really and I put it under the animal’s heels. It just changes the way you look at it. It changes the way we look. I have six members of staff, an hour or so per shot, £75 for a side portrait.
I like being around farmers. I like how they are: they’ve always got some story to tell. But what really interests me is what the places where the beasts come from are like. What’s the secret of the beautiful body? I mean, it’s one thing to see a champion at the shows, where she’s scrubbed up and posed for her best. But what about at home, in her ordinary life, what does she eat, what does she do all day, what are her conditions like, how is she bred? What surprises me is how much it varies. Some farms only have twenty beasts, of which they’ll professionally show maybe ten. Each one is bred up to perfection. Other places, they have hundreds of animals and only one in a generation is a perfect specimen. I can’t see any rule to it – the special individual comes out of nothing. You can’t try to hard, in my opinion, because the animals become what we call linebred; they all just look the same.
I could never have been a farmer – not while I’m on my own, anyway – because I’m too slight. My work is still dependent on agricultural industries, of course, and work has been patchy lately. Things just aren’t going so well for dairy. It will have to end up one way or another. Recovery or extinction. I try not to expect too much from it – if it goes down, well, I can’t afford to get caught out. That’s I’m going back to Domenico. In Italy, you see, you can take pictures all year round. You’ve got the whole of the Alps as your shooting ground.
I found Domenico on the internet. All his livestock pictures were sharp, professional, branded with his flashy signature. Yes, I could have trained in England, of course. But I could see immediately that Domenico was the one. Domenico’s work was the best work. I was a teenager when I first went over to Italy to work for him for three months, alone. Oh no, I didn’t speak any Italian! Nothing like that. By the end of my time I could name any part of a cow or camera, but I’m still working on hello and goodbye and things like that.
Most livestock photographers are cow people who take photographs; Domenico is a trained photographer whose subjects are mainly cattle. (He does weddings too.) He’s based in Cremona but he travels all over Europe on commissions. When I was with Domenico, we drove right across the Alps, Dolomites, Pyrenees. We photographed in France and Switzerland, Italy and Spain. I had never seen anybody take so many photographs – still haven’t. Domenico was full on: six or seven farms a day. He had to turn work down. He had a team who drove out in advance to set up the animals – then he would just come in and shoot them, bang, bang, bang. We edited shoots between jobs, in the back of the car. Domenico has his own driver. That’s something I aspire to.
For the first time, I saw someone who looked at the cattle as models rather than as beasts. There was no difference between a prize sheep and a bride – at least, only what Domenico calls differences of forma. Domenico isn’t at all interested in breeding history, origin or Best-In-Shows. He just looks at each animal as a different body. He just looks at everything in a different way.
I need to go back to Domenico now because he passes on his commissions, and to be honest I need the work. A few years ago he was requested at a livestock show on a small island off the coast of Portugal, Sao Miguel, in the Azores – but his schedule was too full. I covered some of the little jobs like that. It was perfect for me. The special thing about this commission was that it was little children I was photographing – children and their calves. It was a tradition on Sao Miguel, that a little one would choose a young animal from the father’s farm, and nurture this animal especially. At the show they all came, the child farmers, and had their pictures taken by me. They dressed up in their special clothes – football strips for the boys, lacy white dresses for the girls. Like little brides.
I went back again the next year and took the photographs again. Many of the children were the same as I had seen the year before, a little grown; their animals also the same, also a little grown. Some of the animals were better than others already. There was something about seeing the generations of animals and people change at the same time…it made me think. This is what I want to do now: go back to the same places, year after year, like the photographers who came to my parents’ farm when I was a child. The difference is, that I’m going to do the people as well as the animals. I’ll shoot the animals, year on year, keep an eye on what circumstances make a prize-winner. But I’ll shoot the humans too. Eventually I’ll be able to see which of my children end up beautiful and which ones end up rich.