The man who photographs cows CARROLL COUNTY

September 04, 1993|By Kerry O'Rourke | Kerry O'Rourke,Staff Writer

Billy Joe Heath can picture beauty in a bovine.

Making others see it takes fly spray, hair spray and sometimes a little spray paint.

A cow make-over isn't easy. It also draws a crowd.

"Are they trying to get that cow to pose?" asks a woman watching Mr. Heath, a professional cow photographer from Silver Run in Carroll County, at the Maryland State Fair last week.

"They ought to charge admission to this show," comments one man.

The city folk don't get it. Why are six people making a fuss over an animal that obviously doesn't give a hoof about showing her best side?

The farmers and 4-Hers who line up at Mr. Heath's studio -- a fenced grassy area not far from the Cow Palace -- want to capture the coiffed cattle at their best.

Mr. Heath calls himself "a bovine beautician."

He and his five assistants spray, brush, clip, powder, paint and pet the prize-winning cows. Fly spray keeps the pests away, hair spray tames the tails and spray paint covers blemishes and mud stains.

Sometimes he sprays on an adhesive to straighten out a crooked teat or sprinkles baby powder to fill an unsightly dip in a Holstein's back.

One of Mr. Heath's assistants, James Carl Johnson of Emmitsburg -- who also works as an Elvis impersonator -- attaches fishing line to each cow's tail so it can be raised to the most attractive angle.

In the course of his workday, Mr. Heath holds a bucket to catch a Holstein's indiscretions. He murmurs, "Easy, girl," when a Brown Swiss gets fidgety. He chatters like a monkey to try to get a stubborn milking shorthorn to perk up her ears.

He and his helpers will try almost anything to get a cow to perk up her ears.

They will meow or moo while walking slowly toward and then away from the cow with a burlap sack over their heads. They'll wave a rake, jump a fence, pound on a barrel and parade another cow into her line of vision.

All dairy cows are posed the same way -- standing, from the right side with right legs slightly ahead, udders full, tails brushed and ears perked. The owner hangs on to a short lead, often grimacing from the effort of holding the cow still. But it doesn't matter how the owner looks.

The effort makes Mr. Heath, a carefully groomed man himself, sweat. When the cow is posed properly, he races to his cameras set on a tripod 30 feet away. He will not snap a picture if a front hoof is the smallest step out of place or an ear is lying flat.

He sometimes spends up to an hour photographing a cow.

He charges $36 for a black-and-white 5-by-7 print and $45 for a color print.

Many owners use his photographs for advertisements in magazines, such as Holstein World, when they want to sell an animal or display the offspring of a particularly good bull. Others hang the pictures in their homes.

For the past six years, Mr. Heath has traveled the East Coast and Canada "picturing" cows, as he calls it. His wife, Betty Ann, does the darkroom work.

Dairy cows are his specialty. He grew up working on Maryland dairy farms and understands the animals. They don't require much -- the right food, plenty of water, shade when it's hot and a milking twice a day.

"Cows are the real thing," he says.

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