For five decades, Jack Remsberg was the man to call if farmers wanted to make their cows looks good. A lifelong resident of Middletown, Remsberg was a trailblazer in the world of dairy photography and captured the best qualities of over 40,000 cows during his career.
On his 91st birthday, Remsberg accepted the National Dairy Shrine Pioneer award for dairy photography in Madison, Wisconsin.
Down in the remnants of his darkroom — now devoid of enlargers and drum dryers used to process film before the days of Adobe Photoshop — he pulled out prints of some his most memorable shoots.
“When I started, it was all black and white, and it gradually went to color,” Remsberg said.
On his work bench, he keeps a black-and-white photo of a Holstein dairy cow and her bull calf. It took Remsberg and his team a long time to get the bull calf to stand still, he recalled. After several failed attempts, the team took the halter off the calf and snapped the one perfect picture in Remsberg’s box — before the bull ran off across the field.
Later, in 1983, that bull sold for $600,000 in a California auction.
Remsberg’s career is dotted with anecdotes of bull-headed livestock that took days to get pictures of and others with outstanding pedigrees. At 80 years old, Remsberg retired from the industry having proudly never printed a photograph from a digital camera.
Most of Remsberg’s work was done for bull semen marketing and siring. He worked for three major siring businesses — Select Sires of Ohio, Sire Power of Pennsylvania and Atlantic Breeders of Pennsylvania — taking pictures of the bulls and their offspring.
For a number of years, his 12-month schedule would be full by January.
“It’s one of those jobs that if you were good, you had business coming to you,” Remsberg said.
In many of the pictures, a phantom hand enters the top right of the frame holding the ring of a powerful bull. Later in his career, there is often also a rope ascending out of the frame, where it is attached to a boom to help hold the 3,000-pound animal in place.
One particular bull took three days to photograph. On the first day, the bull charged the back of the truck where the man holding his nose ring lay, and popped the shavings 20 feet into the air, Remsberg recalled. The second day, he ripped his nose ring out, and on the third day, Remsberg turned to ropes to get the picture.
In the hours or days spent trying to capture the desired picture, Remsberg wouldn’t know if he had gotten the shot until he was back in his basement darkroom and the roll negatives were strung up from the ceiling.
“To be a dairy cattle photographer, you’ve got to be a good dairy cattle judge,” Remsberg said.
Remsberg got his training on his family’s 150-acre dairy farm and by participating in Middletown 4-H and FFA. Remsberg’s father, J. Homer Remsberg, gave him a heifer at age 8, which he raised, and reared offspring whose sales he used to pay for college.
Remsberg finished high school during World War II and worked on the family dairy farm milking cows by hand at 7 a.m., 3 p.m. and 11 p.m. and working the fields with a horse-drawn plow. After the war ended, he attended the University of Maryland and joined the ROTC program. While at school, he also met his future wife, Marcia.
J. Homer Remsberg was a Navy pilot during World War I. Remsberg followed in his father’s footsteps after graduating from college and getting married in 1951. He served in the U.S. Air Force at the Elmendorf, Alaska, base during the Korean War.
Away from the demands of milking cows each day, Remsberg channeled his extra time into fooling around with his neighbor’s camera.
When he and Marcia returned to Middletown after the war, he joined his father’s milking operation again and neighbors began asking for pictures of their cows for marketing and auctions. He would take pictures for $5 apiece between the milking and develop the pictures at night after dinner.
“My career was never planned. It just evolved,” Remsberg said.
J. Homer Remsberg decided it was time to disperse the dairy herd in 1973, and Remsberg shifted to photography full time. There were six people in the country professionally doing dairy photography back then, and their numbers haven’t grown much since, even though the price for the pictures has.
Remsberg was charging $50 a picture when he left the field in the early 2000s, and that price has continued to climb in the age of digital photography, he said.
Remsberg still lives with Marcia on the parcel divided off his father’s Middletown farm. They are the proud grandparents of 13 grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren — the youngest of whom was born on Nov. 1.
His picture is now on display at the National Dairy Shrine Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, for his pioneer work in dairy photography.
“It was a challenge to be the best,” Remsberg recalled. “I’d been described as a ‘patient perfectionist,’ but that challenge was out there.”
Source: The Frederick News-Post