When Cows Make Art

It is said that those who seek beauty will find it everywhere. This is certainly true of Whit Deschner, a writer-turned-art-critic in Baker City, Oregon. Deschner is the creator of Baker City’s annual Great Salt Lick Art Auction, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. Farmers and ranchers from around the region bring in blocks of salt that their livestock have licked into interesting shapes. The tongue sculptures are judged and auctioned off at a party that brings the whole town together.

If you didn’t know what you were looking at, it really would be easy to mistake the used salt licks for works of modern art. That’s what got Deschner thinking, back in 2006, while visiting a friend who had left a used-up salt lick in front of his cabin.

"We'd had a couple of beers, and it just started looking more and more like art to us," Deschner told NPR. "Could be outside a federal building."

The next step was obvious—to Deschner, anyway. There would have to be an art contest.

Deschner’s neighbors were understandably skeptical at first. But eight years later, the Great Salt Lick Art Auction has become the party—and the art event—of the year. Despite the seemingly random nature of salt-lick sculpture production, a good-natured competition has arisen among the locals.

“I think my cows do an OK job, but I really feel my sheep have brought it home for me,” rancher Kim Jacobs told NPR.

A fresh salt lick retails for about $5, but the finished works of art are auctioned off for much more, between $200 and $1000. The auction is also a fundraiser for Parkinson’s disease research, so every sale is a win. That idea also came from Deschner, who has Parkinson’s disease. He told NPR that living with the degenerative condition has taught him one thing: “You have to follow your folly.”

To date, the auctions have raised tens of thousands of dollars and have inspired a sense of good-natured weirdness among Baker City residents, including cattle ranchers Beth and Fred Phillips. 

“We'd like to think our cows are more artistic than they used to be, but, to be honest, they probably aren't,” Beth told NPR.

“They're definitely more artistic than our neighbors’,” added her husband.

All photographs are courtesy of Baker County Tourism.

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8 Pro Tips for Taking Incredible Pictures of Your Pets

Thanks to the internet, owning a photogenic pet is now a viable career option. Just ask Theron Humphrey, dog-dad to Maddie the coonhound and the photographer behind the Instagram account This Wild Idea. He gained online fame by traveling across the country and sharing photographs of his dog along the way. But Maddie’s impressive modeling skills aren’t the only key to his success; Humphrey has also mastered some essential photography tricks that even the most casual smartphone photographer can use to make their pet look like a social media star.


Based on her Instagram presence, you’d guess Maddie is either in the middle of a road trip or a scenic hike at any given time. That’s no accident: At a pet photography workshop hosted by Adobe, Humphrey said he often goes out of his way to get that perfect shot. “You need to keep situating yourself in circumstances to continue making great work,” he said, “even if that means burning a tank of gas and going someplace you’ve never been.”


Dog and owner on a couch.

That being said, it’s important to know your pet’s limits. Is your dog afraid of flying? Then leave him with a pet sitter when you vacation abroad. Does your cat hate the water? Resist the temptation to bring her into the kayak with you on your next camping trip, even if it would make for an adorable photo opportunity. “One thing I think is important with animals is to operate within the parameters they exist in,” Humphrey said. “Don’t go too far outside their comfort zone.”


Not every winning pet photo is the result of a hefty travel budget. You can take professional-looking pictures of your pet at home, as long as you know how to work with the space you’re in. Humphrey recommends looking at every element of the scene you’re shooting in and asking what can be changed. Don’t be shy about moving furniture, adjusting the blinds to achieve the perfect lighting, or changing into a weird outfit that will make your pup’s eyes pop.


Two dogs in outfits.

Ella and Coconut Bean.

Trying to capture glamorous photos of a moving, barking target is a hard job. It’s much easier when you have a human companion to assist you. Another set of hands can hold the camera when you want to be in the picture with your pet, or hold a toy or treat to get your dog’s attention. At the very least, they can take your pet away for a 10-minute play session when you need a break.


The advent of digital cameras, including the kind in your smartphone, was a game-changer for pet photographers. Gone are the days when you needed to be picky about your shots to conserve film. Just set your shutter to burst mode and let your camera do the work capturing every subtle blep and mlem your pet makes. Chances are you’ll have plenty of standout shots on your camera roll from which to choose. From there, your hardest job will be “culling” them, as Humphrey says. He recommends uploading them to a photo organizing app like Adobe Lightroom and reviewing your work in two rounds: The first is for flagging any photo that catches your eye, and the second is for narrowing down that pool into an even smaller group of photos you want to publish. Even then, deciding between two shots taken a fraction of a second apart can be tricky. “When photos are too similar, check the focus,” he said. “That’s often the deciding factor.”


When it comes to capturing the perfect pet photo, an expensive camera is often less important than your cat’s favorite feather toy. The most memorable images often include pets that are engaging with the camera. In order to get your pet to look where you want it to, make sure you're holding something your pet will find interesting in your free hand. If your pet perks up at anything that makes noise, find a squeaky toy. If they’re motivated by food, use their favorite treat to get their attention. Don’t forget to reward them with the treat or the toy after they sit for the photo—that way they’ll know to repeat the behavior next time.


Person with hat taking photo of dog and dog food.

According to Humphrey, your pet’s eye should be the focus of most shots you take. In some cases, you may need to do more to make your pet the focal point of the image, even if that means removing your face from the frame altogether. “If there’s a human in the photo, you want to make them anonymous,” Humphrey said. That means incorporating your hands, legs, or torso into a shot without making yourself the star.


This is the mantra Theron Humphrey repeated throughout his workshop. You can scout out the perfect location and find the perfect accessories, but when you’re shooting with animals you have no choice but to leave room for flexibility. “You have to learn to roll with the mistakes,” Humphrey said. What feels like a hyperactive dog ruining your shot in the moment might turn out to be social media gold when it ends up online.


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