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Eye for art, demand for detail keeps DeBruin in photography

Karma M. Fitzgerald Published on 20 November 2013

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Kathy DeBruin is a stickler for detail. She has to be.

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A livestock photographer, her clients say tenacity and perfectionism are her signatures.

They are the elements that set her work apart from the rest.

Those are qualities she gained from a lifetime working with cattle and a natural talent for art. They are also qualities that spawned a career in which she opened doors for the women who now dominate the industry.

When she went to work for the legendary Danny Weaver back in 1972, livestock photography was a man’s world.

“He was the main guy,” she says in a phone interview from her New Glarus, Wisconsin, office. “He had revolutionized the way things were done. I talked him into training me.”

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At the time, there were a lot of people in the dairy business who thought “women couldn’t do such a thing,” she says.

The first challenge of her new job with Weaver’s company, Agri-Graphics, was convincing clients she was up to the task. She says some were just skeptical – others were downright disbelieving.

“One guy took one look at me and ran me out of the yard,” she says.

When she graduated from high school, DeBruin says she had no intention of pursuing a career in agriculture. She’d grown up showing Brown Swiss and working on the family dairy. When she started college, she says her intent was to get off the farm. Halfway through, she knew that wasn’t really what she wanted.

She majored in zoology and planned on illustrating textbooks. While at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, she also showed dairy, unusual for someone not majoring in agriculture.

When she graduated in 1971, she says there just wasn’t a lot offered for women in agriculture.

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“You could go marry a farmer or be a secretary,” she says.

Weaver had been on DeBruin’s family’s dairy photographing cattle, and he was the best out there, she says. She convinced him to give her a chance. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.

She bought the company from Weaver in 1980.

Since then, she’s led Agri-Graphics in the transition from film to digital photography. DeBruin says digital imaging has its pros and cons.

“There’s never a bad weather day. You can shoot the photos in some corner of the barn and put them on a nice background later,” she says.

Photo editing, however, is a touchy subject in the industry. DeBruin says her policy is not to do anything on the computer she wouldn’t be able to do in person.

“I like my cows to look like themselves. You’re going to highlight the good points, not create something that wasn’t there.”

On the downside, it’s changed her workload in a way she doesn’t necessarily like.

“If you’re not putting the time in the field, you’re putting the time in someplace else. There’s things I hate about it. I’ve got my butt parked in front of a computer,” she says. “I used to hand in my roll of film and I was done with it.”

The other major change in livestock photography is the dominance of women. She says she had to spend a lot of time just proving herself to potential clients.

That’s just not the case anymore.

“Dairy cattle photography is dominated by young females,” DeBruin says. “It requires a huge amount of patience. Not a lot of men have lasted long in this profession.”

She says the long, slow process of getting started might be the determining factor.

“If you’re a male supporting a family, the world is more expensive,” she says. “The photographers that are out there have stayed. We’ve stuck with it.”

Along the way, DeBruin has not only been persistent, she’s helped launch the careers of the people who are now her biggest competitors, says her daughter, photographer Shannon Hayes.

DeBruin also helped launch Hayes’ career. Hayes says she and her siblings not only grew up showing cattle; they were handed cameras at a young age.

All of them have stayed involved in agriculture and Hayes has become, according to her mother, a well-respected photographer of collies in the dog show industry.

“I have learned a really strong work ethic from my mom and eye for balance and color. She always stresses color – correct color,” Hayes says. “I’ve learned a lot about character and ethics. She’s a real stickler for ethics in an industry that isn’t particularly known for ethics.”

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Hayes says she started helping her mom as soon as she was old enough to hold a tail.

She has watched her mom pay attention to the details: perfecting the top line, making sure the feet are placed just right and ensuring the cows look their best.

“It takes her longer to get things done, sometimes,” Hayes says. “She’s a perfectionist.”

Gary Janssen of Golden Oaks Farm in Wauconda, Illinois, has worked with DeBruin for the last 20 years.

He says DeBruin’s work stands out because of her attention to the details.

“She’s very particular, which [photographers] need to be, on how the animals are set up and photographed.”

DeBruin says it’s important to listen to her customers and find ways to meet their needs in the best way possible.

“They may not bring you the fanciest cows out there,” DeBruin says. “Those cows are just as important to these guys as the fancy cows. They’re going to spend the money to photograph them. We all didn’t start out with a fabulous herd. It’s the best they’ve got, and they’re proud of it.” PD

DeBruin’s work can be found at her website .

Karma Metzler Fitzgerald is a freelance writer in Shoshone, Idaho.

PHOTOS
TOP RIGHT: Wisconsin photographer Kathy DeBruin is known for her attention to detail.

BOTTOM RIGHT: DeBruin sets up a Brown Swiss cow for a photo shoot, making sure her legs are in the perfect position. Photos by Ray Merritt.

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