Kate Kirkwood, Cowspines

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Ten O’Clock Books (here). Clothbound hardcover with belly band, 8×10 inches, 64 pages, with 28 color photographs. Includes an essay by Joel Meyerowitz. Design by Martin Chapman Fromm. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the post-Becher era, photographic typologies have developed from what was once a minor subcategory into a well-established discipline, attracting practitioners of all stripes and styles. Taryn Simon, Richard Misrach, Ken O’Hara, Mary Ellen Mark, Jeff Brouws, and Penelope Umbrico may not seem to have much in common, but all have dipped an occasional toe into the waters of typology. These and scads of other photographers have systematically documented everything from prison cells to sunsets to twins, T-shirts, contraband, water towers, gas stations, parking spaces, and more, employing photography’s descriptive prowess to highlight differences and continuities across broad groupings.

By this point, so many subjects have been sliced and diced that the supply of untapped targets might seem limited. But of course there are always new horizons. In the case of Kate Kirkwood, that statement applies quite literally. Her typological focus is bovine backs, and her recent monograph Cowspines captures them set against various rolling hills and storm clouds, creating a surprisingly multifarious collection. Every spine is unique. All were found near Kirkwood’s rural farm home in the Lake District of England, then captured with patient determination over a twelve year period.

Each of Cowspines’ 28 photographs shares a similar formal structure. Horizontal frames are layered with loose striations of content, creating Rothko-esque compositions of stacked planes. The bottom is generally dominated by a single bovine pelt, shot from a few feet away at perpendicular vantage to compress depth and emphasize abstraction. The furry base layers top out around mid-frame, at which point they give way to an upper register of country backgrounds and sky conditions. With just these two primary ingredients—cows and landscapes—Kirkwood’s possibilities might seem constrained. But her private cow universe turns out to be expansive, hiding an astonishing variety of shapes, textures, and permutations, all enhanced by her keen eye for palette and juxtaposition. 

Kirkwood might be the first focus on its cowspines, but the Lake District has a rich photographic history. “It’s a daunting prospect to make landscape photographs in [a place] that has been endlessly photographed, and its beauty affirmed by many masters,” she recently told The Guardian. “I wondered if there was a way to capture something else, something about the quiet spirit of the spaces I know here, to somehow describe the way it moves me, and maybe even to move others in a fresh way.”

Cowspines called for an insider, and Kirkwood was just the person for the job. Living nearby, she became quite familiar with the local animals and their habits. She developed an instinct for their spots and moments, and was able to foresee possibilities before they transpired. The opening image, for example, casts cow morphology into the same shape and color as background fog. The great animal back has the mass of distant mountain ridges, with fur tufts which might be taken for grass hummocks. A few photos later, a different cow signals a different mood entirely – this one has mottled brown fur to match the dim scenery behind. Both feel rather dismal, just another summer’s day in Northern England. A few pages further and the mood has again been turned on its head. Kirkwood has found a tiny rainbow on the horizon with colors to match a cow’s peach-tan hide. 

These are just a few examples. All twenty-eight are different, each with its own horizontal banding and internal logic. The inescapable impression is of a photographer who’s spent a great deal of time on farms at the magic hour, mingling with cows and camera, patiently observing. She has shot other farm animals and pastoral scenes in the past. Although most have generally been rural-based and absent of humans, her style leans toward the street-savvy serendipity of urban flâneurs. In Cowspines—her first book— street skills are honed to pitchfork sharpness. A photo of circular cloud juxtaposed just so behind curving shoulder blades, for example, is as pointedly witnessed as any Oxford Street handshake. The foreword is by Joel Meyerowitz, better known in the street photo community than among cowhands. “Artists help us see what was really there all along,” he notes. That’s true of barns as well as sidewalks.

As with street photography, one might question the deeper significance of these pictures. Are they merely compositional exercises, matching X spine with Y backdrop? Yes they are. But for Kirkwood, one can infer some emotional weight as well. For outsiders, they might serve as a doorway to caring, an insider’s view of Lake District culture. “I was struck by how very settled into their landscape the cows are,” she recounted to The Guardian, “…and how beautifully the landscape around them, the hills, the clouds, the stone walls, blended with them, formed shapes and tones and textures around them.” She knows these cows and landforms like the back of her hand. Her subsequent exposures have a personality and warmth, a zoological version of family album. 

All well and good, but I still believe this book is probably best considered as a typological study. The lineup of photos has a herd mentality, with the stubborn consistency of a mule train, revealing unexpected parallels again and again. Perhaps some co-evolution is involved, animal forms adapting to nature, and vice versa? Who would have guessed cows might hold such secrets? Who else would have undertaken such an improbable project? Turns out fur types, pattern, thickness, age, splotching, size, and skin tone are as individual as fingerprints. And their nearby weather systems follow suit, with gradations of sunlight, cloud, and shadow. After browsing Kirkwood’s photos, the balance of expectation begins to shift. Instead of typological stasis, commonalities begin to seem almost miraculous. That’s the mark of any typology worth its salt.

Cowspines is just the second monograph from Ten O’Clock books, a fledgling UK-based publisher managed by graphic designer Martin Chapman Fromm. His arrangement of Cowspines is simple and direct, a plain clothbound hardback with traditional serif title, housing one photo per spread. It would fit comfortably in an old farmhouse. The only (slightly awkward) flair is an added belly band blurbing Joel Meyerowitz’s foreword. Throwing his name on the cover might be an understandable nod to market forces, but at nearly the same size as Kirkwood’s, it completes with hers for attention. It’s a disconcerting detail, but relatively minor and does not detract much, especially once the book is engaged and Kirkwood’s cowspines begin to supplant it from memory.

Collector’s POV: Kate Kirkwood does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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