As big as they are, the agility of a horse is astonishing. It's more than their ability to instantly accelerate, turn, and suddenly stop that makes photographing them difficult though. They also flick their ears, swish their tails, flare their nostrils, wiggle their lips, and use their heads (instead of hands) to gesture. As a result, I began this project by building a fine collection of blurry shapes — some of which were intriguing. Here, for example, is a photo of Red kicking that I used to create Fresco III.
Another challenge is figuring out how to photograph someone with four legs. Even two-legged humans, when not properly posed, can sometimes appear awkward in a photograph. With four legs, the horse's weight shifts diagonally and for a fraction of a second the front and back ends can be headed in different directions. So, while a horse's graceful and fluid motion is evident in a video, four legs in a photo can look awkward. This is why I became interested in seeing what I could do with close-ups.
But focusing on close ups doesn't eliminate all of the challenges. And these are the same you might encounter with a human subject. Did the horse blink? Lick his lips? Show some teeth? Wait, is that a grin? Yes, I'm sure it is! Awesome.
Is the lighting right? All of my photographs are taken with natural lighting and the shifting light combined with subtle movements can create the illusion of an unnaturally long nose or it can make the veins on a face look like they are bulging.
Then there is the wind. Is it blowing the forelock in front of the horse's eyes? Is it ruffling the horse's mane in a flattering way? Police horse candidates spend a couple months trying out for the part and, once accepted, the right-of-passage ritual is to clip their manes. Since this is done by someone with no stylist training, their manes can look chopped. Sometimes the wind fluffs it straight up into a "manehawk."
Now, where's the tail? Is it attractively curled or exposing something uh … private?
And where are the ears? Humans like to see a horse's ears cocked forward like a German Shepherd's, but horse ears are made to swivel in order to detect sound from all directions and ears swiveled just right can resemble devilish horns. Here is the Sergeant's partner, Olin, and the angelic Asher to show you what I mean.
It's also important to note whether or not the horses slept well the night before. If not, it will show in their faces; they will look worn out – just like you or I would.
Success really depends on the horse's mood. There are times when my friends enjoy posing for my photographs and times when they make it clear that I am intruding by giving me the slit-eyed glance reserved for paparazzi.
Finally, is my camera ready? It's in my hand with the strap wrapped around my wrist; but is it turned on, with a full battery, and with plenty of room on the memory card? Even though it's my best guess as to where to first point my camera, guess I must. Add to that my unsteady hand since I do not use a tripod.
Let's say everything is in order: the lighting is right, my subjects seem happy, and my camera is ready. There is still one element that can mess the whole thing up and that's me.
Am I paying attention? Am I tuned in to the action in the corner or has my interest drifted to the standing horses at the other end of the arena? Unless my camera is set to take in the entire arena, I may miss something extraordinary. But if my camera is set to take it all in, then I will miss some remarkable close ups that the most skilled cropping cannot save because enlargements are pixilated.
So I have to think of myself as the wide-angle lens seeing the big picture and my camera as the telephoto lens isolating details of a scene. My mind has to be focused on responding to movement anywhere within my field of vision. In other words, I must learn to focus just like a horse.
The best seasons to photograph my friends in action are the chilly days of early spring and late fall. This is when it's not so cold that their owners have outfitted them with blankets, and not so hot that they might be wearing fly masks or that standing still is their idea of a good time. A chilly day in Portland sometimes includes blustery wind and rain so, on a great day for a photo shoot, you may see me hooded up with one gloved hand clutching an umbrella to keep my camera dry while my bare hand controls my camera.
It doesn't always go smoothly and here's an example of what can go wrong. We are in the heat of action — the horses are playing rowdy and my camera is following closely — when a sudden gust of wind inverts my umbrella and splashes my camera lens. Even though my feet are still dry in my waterproof boots, my levis sometimes soak through and my leather messenger bag does too. When that happens, I thank my friends for a good day's work and I tromp home to dry out and to sort through my photographs.
Horses are individuals with distinct personalities and fluctuating moods. To photograph them well, I suggest spending lots of time with them and taking thousands of photographs. It is through the editing process that I learned how to read their facial expressions and it took me two years to develop the confidence to represent my friends in portraiture. I want to depict them in the most natural and the most flattering ways possible.