The Best of the Best - Project Statement

The Best of the Best documents champion animals at the 2018 Minnesota State Fair, one of the most competitive and popular animal contests in the world. Like animal breeding, photography has been an arena of both technical and material evolution. This series explores the relationship between the present and the past, and draws parallels between early animal contests at agricultural fairs and the first major exhibition of photography at the 1851 World’s Fair in London.

In The Best of the Best, I wanted to document the event in which a dozen pairs of animal species are judged “supreme champion”, (a.k.a. the best of the best). Using a digital camera, I photographed winning exemplars of domesticated animals, then combined 19th-century salt printing techniques and contemporary archival inkjet printing technology into single images to emphasize changes in animal breeds over time, and advances in photographic technology. The process combines science and art; it renders both an objective typology of animal husbandry and a commentary about animal contests in one particular time and place. These hand-crafted portraits reference similarities between the history and development of photography and the advent of animal contests. 

As in life, animal breeding and creative undertakings such as photography, the contributions of chance remind us that we are not in control. Two champions do not guarantee champion offspring. The unforeseen result of science and chance can be the embodiment of beauty or success. When several animals meet and exceed the standards that judges rely on to guide their decisions, the winner becomes a subjective choice. 

I use the color red as a unifying element throughout, as a nod to French photographer Nadar (Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, 1820–1910), who employed the color in marketing and signing his work. Historically, the color red has been associated with life, health, and victory. It also symbolizes the shared characteristic between all these animals: the color of blood. Its principal ingredient is salt, an essential element for mammals and birds for millennia that also propelled the evolution of photography. 

I make salt prints, using a photographic process popular between 1839-1860, as a way to connect to photography’s historical roots and I print on them digitally to connect them to the present. Combining these two printing processes softens photography’s particularized quality. The subtle tonality of salt printing expresses mood and emotion more than facts, a contrast to the sharpness of a digital print. Subject, process, emotion, science, and chance meet in the print to make both an immediate document and a comment on photography’s past, present, and future.