THE MAKING OF FROLIC

 

Asher is the subject of Frolic 1 (2012) and Frolic 2 (2015). Although these images were created in different years, the same source photographs were used for both.

This is Asher. Isn't he gorgeous? He's a black beauty with amber eyes. His handlers clip him in the autumn so it's easier to dry him off after a rain storm or a sweaty workout. This photograph was taken in January 2015.

 

 

Asher not only moves like a dancer, but he also instructs. I'm not kidding. I happened to be there in February 2013 when Asher, Monty, and Murphy were turned out together. Murphy is the newest and youngest member of the herd and I watched Asher pull him aside for a lesson in synchronized stepping.

 

 

After the lesson, they retreated to a corner and I suspect they were talking about me. I sure hope it's okay with them that I've shown you their dance.


 

The photograph of Asher that I used for both versions of Frolic was taken in August 2012. Asher was galloping around the perimeter of the arena with some friends when he suddenly turned and stepped into the center — to perform a solo.

 

 

There is a lot of visual noise in this photograph of Asher so I knew the finished piece would have a dreamy quality. I wanted to successfully communicate to viewers the magic of Asher's dance and the following words came to mind:

In a mystical sun-streaked glade, a dark stallion taps out a rhythm for the next fairy dance.

 

For the background, I combined a photograph of Portland's South Waterfront garden taken in 2010 with an unsaved photograph of wispy clouds (similar to the one shown here).

 

 

The colors in Asher's photograph are predominantly magenta-gray and I didn't want to go with black and white for the finished piece. But I did want his dark coat to stand out, so I suppressed most of the colors in the fantasy background I created.

 

 

After carefully blending this background with my photograph of Asher, it still needed a lot of work because I had increased the level of noise or distortion. In the end, I decided to add a linen-like texture to the work — which made it appear antiquated.

Here is the finished piece:

Frolic 1 (2012)

 

Three years later, I had a new vision for this piece so I tackled the project again — using the same ingredients. This time, I used a different approach to cleaning up the photograph of Asher.

 

 

 

My plan was to re-combine the background photographs of garden and clouds, but I hadn't saved the cloud photograph, and I couldn't find another I liked as well. So I applied different treatment to the old background.

 

 

This time the blending process took even longer because I had substantially increased the distortion. Sometimes images can look good on the screen but prove a disaster in print so I took extra steps in order to eliminate pixelization and preserve top quality.

Here is the finished piece:

Frolic 2 (2015)

 

 

WHY HORSES?

 

In 2012, I met my first horses. They serve in Portland's Mounted Patrol Unit and are stabled near downtown, easily accessible by public transportation. Every encounter with them was a happy event for me. It didn't matter which horses were out that day or if they paid any attention to me. My mood lifted as soon as I saw them. Every time I saw them. So I began visiting them regularly on their days off.

Over time, my fascination grew into a sort of research project. I wanted to learn all I could about horses in general because these particular individuals interacted in ways that mimicked conversation. Their facial expressions changed while they looked into each others' eyes, as if new information was passing between them.

So I read dozens of books on humane horsemanship and equine therapy and I found horse trainers, animal behaviorists, and equine therapists who all agree that horses talk. Humans just can't hear them. Not with their ears anyway. Then, in June 2016, the first scientific study confirming horses 'talk' to human handlers was published.

http://www.thehorse.com/articles/37681/study-confirms-horses-talk-to-human-handlers?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_medium=readerfavorites&utm_campaign=06172016

I also found out that human-horse bonds increase human oxytocin levels while lowering stress hormones. This explained why I enjoyed the company of horses; but, more importantly, it also explained a cultural phenomenon. There was a time when Americans required close human-animal bonding in order to succeed. Now that traditional farm life has all but disappeared, most of us who were born after 1950 are oxytocin-deprived. Psychological/developmental dysfunctions are rampant because people need to interact with animals for their brains to work right.

For the first time in recorded history, humans do not depend on horses to accomplish our heavy labor. So what purpose do horses serve in our modern lives? They improve quality of life for humans in three ways:

  • Horses are superior to humans in their ability to correctly perceive intent.

  • Horses know how to peacefully coexist and we can learn from them.

  • Studies confirm that just being around horses is a calming influence for people.

      https://news.wsu.edu/2014/04/24/horsing-around-reduces-stress-hormones-in-youth/

 

It didn't take me long to notice that my friends acted differently when I ran into them on the streets. You know how your lover-mate-partner acts when they are around their parents? It was like that. My friends were definitely "on duty." Yes, it was nice to see me, but they were busy. So I don't run up to pet them on the street anymore. I just wave. I'd rather visit with my friends when they are relaxed.

Some people want to remove horses from urban environments on grounds that it's more humane. But horses take pleasure in excelling at their jobs, they don't like to be bored or lonely, and they are eager to interact with humans. And since interaction with horses makes people kinder, it's a great way to reduce crime. So I suggest protecting city people and horses by ensuring superior care for city horses.

PHOTOGRAPHING HORSES

 

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.

 

THE TAKE-AWAY

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.

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