Updated: Feb 10
I think anyone who follows this blog would be aware that I like to photograph cows, and since I have a new photo here, I thought it might be nice to share a themed set from my portfolio alongside the new one, with a little bit of an explanation about each, and the ideas behind them.
First of all here's my latest "Highland Cow On Black". I took this one in the autumn, while I was in the Outer Hebrides. We chanced upon a trio of free-roaming cattle as we explored a remote stretch of road in the west of Lewis, and I particularly liked the play of light on the amber fur.
I'm pretty thrilled with this one actually. I've already shared a blog post purely for photos from this trip, and I didn't include this one as I just wasn't very happy with it at the time. I couldn't get the contrast right in post-processing and I wasn't happy with the light drop-off or the colours either, so I put it to one side, not expecting to go back to it. But you know what lockdown is like - it forces you to look back through your library and find something to tinker with. And second time around I think I've got exactly what I had in mind when I clicked the shutter. Over the last few years, I've been slowly going less and less contrasty with my photos - preferring a more subtle aesthetic. Well this is the absolute antithesis of that. I really wanted that iconic shaggy hair to glow in the warm light, and for those highlights to really leap out. There's still a degree of subtlety about it; with much of the detail lost to the shadow of the low-key light, but overall it's a pretty punchy image, and I think it'll make a great canvas print, in particular. You can find it in my main gallery here.
So that's the new one, but what is it about our bovine friends that makes me want to point a camera at them?
Just look at the character you get from these guys. They convey so much personality. Usually with animal portraits it's all about eye contact, but I love the challenge of working with an animal where that's not even possible - yet they still convey charisma even without it. This highland cow was also in the Hebrides, looking majestic against the steely grey sky. You've got to wonder how they see the world, through that curtain of hair.
I think this was my first proper cow portrait. From back in 2014. It was the familiarity of the subject that drew me to it. As a nature photographer it's tempting to chase rare or spectacular species around the world, but I felt like it was nice to showcase something more relatable. Sometimes the more familiar we are with something, the less we really pay attention. And cows seemed like an overlooked subject. We all learn about them from toddler age, but as adults they're just something that's there in the background. I think it's nice to reignite that spark.
Cows have lived alongside us since domestication around 8,000-10,500 years ago. That's twice as long ago as the invention of the wheel, and a time of woolly mammoths, when Britain was still connected to Europe by land. With a relationship that ancient, they're deeply embedded in our culture, and I think images of them really resonate with us. Well they do for me anyway.
This is an English Longhorn. She doesn't yet have the characteristic curved horns, but it's a really distinctive breed with an appealing texture from the combination of dark and light hair.
Another thing I like about cows is that they're not particularly cool; they're the antithesis of a passing fad. You've got your pangolins, your quokkas, your slow loris', and they're all great fun, but there's something about these cumbersome ruminants that stands the test of time. To me, this old girl seems to have a slightly quizzical posture. Her head is at a very slight angle, like she's questioning something.
I've always enjoyed a style of paintings which rose to popularity in the 1800s, of these strangely boxy-looking cows. They're hard to explain, but you'll know what I mean if you've seen them. If not, try here or here. They're just a curious combination of realism and curiosity, presumably made to accentuate preferable characteristics for breeding. But they captured my imagination decades ago, and I think they've influenced my desire to photograph cows too. Especially for any livestock portraits which are side-on, like the one below. At some point I'd like to capture a full body profile, with a rustic background, like those old paintings.
This highland cattle bull had an outrageous set of horns on him, and this front-on composition seemed to show them at their best. Here I liked the shape, as he gets wider as he gets higher. I also like the transition of light 'fringe' hair to the darker hair on his face.
This was another very early addition to my On Black project, and it's been popular over the years, with prints shipped as far away as Australia. The beauty of this one is the strong side-lighting, which enables the shadows to easily fade to black. It also has a colour version here.
This one is a classic highland cow behaviour; licking the nostril after having a drink. Most of my photos are intentionally fairly static, even stoic poses, but it was nice to capture this more dynamic moment, which celebrates another aspect of the character of this breed.
This is the second bull in this collection, and I hope it conveys the intimidating size and power of this animal. He was absolutely enormous - like I imagine a large male bison to be, and he towered over me as I crouched to take this photo through the rails of a steel gate. This photo also acknowledges the reality of the existence for cattle in the UK today. The ring through the nose is an explicit indication of human management of livestock, as is the maximisation of muscle and form in the body. For many of us, our appreciation for cows belies the uncomfortable truth that in the majority of cases cattle exist today purely as a commodity to provide us with foods of one kind or another. It's a dichotomy which society currently continues to live with.
The last photo is another favourite of mine, and features the widest set of horns I've ever photographed. So much so that I chose to include only half of the cow itself, in order to afford the space to take in the full length of the horn. I like the texture on the underside of the horn here, and how the long waterfall-style hair hangs down over the ears, mirroring the fringe covering the face beside it.
So there we go. I've been meaning to share a collection of cow photos together for a while, as they're one of my favourite subjects, and they always seem to resonate well with others too. So it was nice to have the excuse of a new one to add to the collection. And if this is your bag, you can browse my full gallery of livestock photos here, featuring portraits of cows, sheep, and chickens.