Thursday, October 28, 2010

How we do it here

My friend asked, have you ever photographed a cattle auction, and I said, no. Would you like to, she asked.

Her offer sounded so—innocent, so devoid of ulterior motive. My suspicions were immediately aroused.

I asked for more details. This would be their first homeground auction, combined with two other families. It was a Big Deal, two years in the making, and she wanted a photographic record of the proceedings. I could put my photojournalist skills to good use, she said. No pressures, just have a good time.

There was one catch: she wanted the expressions of the bidders captured at the moment of their win or loss. You know, she said, the drama.

Since moving to Kansas ten years ago, we’ve been invited to a K-State girls’ basketball game, rodeos, county fairs, soup suppers, church socials, VFW flag-burnings, chicken-butchering (is that a verb?), poetry readings, modern dance performances, art galleries, trail rides, volleyball tournaments, 4-H events, tractor pulls, horse-drawn Christmas parades, square dances and mega-wattage Fourth of July celebrations. Some events were familiar to us from our time in the city, but others, notably those more rural in nature, were attempts to enculturate us to our new surroundings.

Or so I suspect. There’s a strong sense of gratification in the rural lifestyle, and it’s natural to want to show it off to those whose backgrounds were constrained by fields of asphalt and skyscrapers rather than fields of corn or milo. But to consider it mere pride of place would be overreaching. Prairie people are much too stoic and commonsensical to fall for one of the deadliest deadly sins. Theirs is a simple message devoid of bragging or exaggeration: This is how we do it here.

How they did it at the Burlap and Barbed Wire Female Sale at Hofmann Simmental Farms near Clay Center was to let prospective buyers inspect the cows in a small penned lot prior to the sale. Men, women and children, each clutching a sale flyer, pored over each bovine like enraptured viewers gazing at a Rembrandt or a Matisse. The attention given to the animals was weirdly fascinating but, frankly, puzzling.

I mean, they all pretty much looked alike. Some were reddish, some were reddish-brown, some brownish-red, some black. Each had a tail and a nose and two eyes. I overhead two men discussing the shape of their hips. Try as I might, I couldn’t distinguish one hip from another. When I think hips, I think the Swedish Bikini Team, but that’s another story.

Before the auction started, I asked my friend, Kim, if bidders used paddles like at the fancy Sotheby's auctions. I was told country auctions rely on facial expressions, or the lack thereof. She demonstrated: the cross-eyed grimace as if a mosquito flew up your nose, the barely perceptible lift of an eyebrow, the sideways shift of the eyes, the flick of a finger.

Sometimes, she warned, you won’t even see that.

I thought I knew something about action photography from shooting volleyball tournaments, but the auction left me in the dust. From the opening bell to the last fading reverb there wasn’t a break in the pulse, with yelling and shouting and arm waving from the three guys on the floor to the auctioneer with his full-auto vocals. Bidding, however, was done either invisibly or through motions too subtle to catch. By the end I was convinced much of it was done telepathically.

To wrap up the shoot I followed several buyers into the pens to document the loading. The cows marched unhesitatingly into the trailers. One young girl who earlier had bawled inconsolably followed her cattle as they were loaded and then swung the tailgate closed with an air of finality and resolve. It was humbling to watch and for a moment I felt like a voyeur. Her grit and determination burned white-hot and yet she turned and walked away without a backward glance. Lesser men would have been brought to their knees.

A man standing nearby shook his head as if moved by the sight. Those cows are the gentlest I’ve ever seen, he said. I’ve never seen more gentle cows.

Being the obvious outsider, I was too unsure of myself to reply. I was afraid of saying something really stupid or of showing my ignorance, so I remained silent. But I wanted to say, of course they are, they’re Kim and Rodney’s cows, they’re the best. And they have good hips!

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