In an age when animal husbandry has been near-uniformly industrialised, the German photographer Ursula Böhmer has worked for more than a decade on a project that reminds us that the beasts caught up in that commercial enterprise remain individuals, even if we prefer not to think of them that way.
"The system in which our society produces meat is really disgusting," she says. "I've never killed an animal and I'm glad that I don't have to. But more and more, I feel that we really should know what we have on our plates."
And so, for her series All Ladies, Böhmer travelled through 25 countries around Europe, photographing 50 breeds on their native terrain, to show how different climates have affected their physiognomy and how the continent's various agrarian cultures – whether they are used as draft animals, for instance, or purely for milking – have influenced their physicality.
"The manners in which cows are represented are manifold," she adds, referring to the significance these animals have held since prehistory, as evidenced by cave paintings, through to modern-day Eastern religions that venerate the animal, "but mostly [in Europe] their dignity is disregarded. I make straight-on frontal portraits of them to 'make contact' with them."
Indeed, the scant backgrounds offer little to interpret, while the bulk of her subjects' corporeality is often hidden by the angle at which the shots are taken, making it the glances the cows give Böhmer that are the focus of her lens.
Whether they are inquisitive, ruminative or merely bored – these are qualities we read into the shots. But whether they are, as above, a Barrosa, an Avileña-Black Ibérica or a Hinterwälder, these are facts. A fact, too, that Böhmer drives home, is that each is distinct not only in breed but also in personality – a distinction it behoves us to remember, lest the mechanisation of our food-making processes dehumanises us. "These are beings," she concludes, "not human, but definitely comparable."
'All Ladies – Cows in Europe' is published by Kehrer, priced £32