Photo Credit: Horse Photographer Maria Marriott
“Good wine is whatever you most enjoy in the moment.”
On one of my last blogs I wrote about what constitutes technical excellence in equine portraits.
I briefly shared my thoughts on focus, use of depth of field, and correct light. These are some of the things that even the non-photographer can quickly assess to determine if a photograph is well taken and technically excellent. Although I continually remind myself that different people have different tastes, at minimum it is important that horse photography and art in general are well-executed if they are going to hang on my walls.
What constitutes “art”, however, is largely subjective. I even hesitate to write about this because there isn’t really a solid definition of what “good art” is. It reminds me of the saying that “Good wine is whatever you most enjoy in the moment.”
But, regardless, I’ll share some thoughts on how I think about artistic expression in my horse portraits and how a good portrait can offer a window into the soul of the subject - even if (and especially when) that subject happens to be one of our equine friends.
Can Art Be Defined?
Looking at some of the most popular definitions available of what “art” is, we come up with some similar themes:
From the Oxford Dictionary: Art is “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.”
From the Britannica Dictionary: Art is “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.”
And from Wikipedia: “Art is a diverse range of human activity, and its resulting product, that involves creative or imaginative talent expressive of technical proficiency, beauty, emotional power, or conceptual ideas.”
Photo Credit: Equine Photographer Maria Marriott
In these definitions, some common themes emerge. Creative skill and imagination are fundamental. Art may be less about reality and more conceptual. Art should exhibit technical excellence (which we talked about in the last blog on horse portraits). And there must be elements of beauty and emotion. In addition, art is often used to express ideas.
Let’s boil our working definition down to include the following necessary elements: skill, creativity, beauty and emotion. As I organize and select the final images from an equine portrait shoot, these are some of the key criteria that I analyze and will discuss in this blog.
What Makes A Good Portrait?
“The countenance is the portrait of the soul, and the eyes mark its intentions.”
- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Assuming you already read the prior blog, I’ll move on to the more subjective elements that make a good portrait, focusing mainly on horse portraits rather than human portraits.
Last time I asked the question: “Can a photograph capture one’s soul?” This is a very interesting question for me when considering portraits because, even though not many people (at least in our society) would believe that a picture literally can capture a soul, in a non-literal way it is actually something I aspire to as a horse photographer.
When we say that in a good horse portrait you “capture the soul” of the animal, what I believe is meant is that the best equine portraits strongly convey a sense of the personality of the horse.
I like to think that if I have done my job as an equine portrait photographer, at least the horse owner should be able to clearly see each horse’s personality in the series of images. Even better is when a single image captures several of the most notable traits a horse exhibits.
For example, earlier this year I was shooting portraits of several horses at a client’s barn. Before the shoot, my client introduced me to each of the horses, with the final introduction being to a huge Percheron mare. What first caught my attention was the sheer size and muscle structure of this mare. She was magnificent in stature, and it is not often that I am in the presence of such a gigantic horse.
But, as we started the session, her personality began to emerge and outshone her remarkable physical characteristics. Despite towering over her handler, she exhibited a gentleness and sweetness, a kindness and willingness to do whatever was asked of her.
I knew I had to capture in the portraits: a combination of her massive size and her gentle sweetness. And we found it in her eyes. My favorite image of the session ended up being one with her muscular haunches in the foreground, her neck gently turned, one eye looking back toward the camera with the sweetest expression.
Photo Credit: Equine Photographer Maria Marriott
This is how I know when the “soul” of a horse has been memorialized in a portrait and that I’ve been successful… the owner (and others who know the horse well) comment that they clearly see certain qualities in the portrait, qualities that are unique to that horse. It can be sweetness and gentleness. Sometimes it is a certain intensity. Other times it is a persistent playfulness.
But, at least to me, in successful equine portraits there must clearly be an emotion that is evident and remarkable enough that it registers with the viewers. One of the most gratifying things I ever heard from a portrait client was:
“I cannot express enough how Maria is able to capture the essence of each
individual horse that she photographs. Somehow, her innate ability to connect with each horse allows her to capture that special and unique-to-each-horse quality that makes him/her personally special to the owner.
I honestly don't know how she does so, but clearly it is a gift.”
- J. Von Ilten, Arroyo Grande, CA
Can An Equine Portrait Be Art?
So, if the first consideration in creating an equine fine art portrait is skill, or technical excellence, and the second group of considerations have to do more with “emotion” and capturing the personality of the horse, then… the third “level” of things to consider has to do with beauty and creativity, the final (and most subjective) elements in our definition of “art” above.
With a horse portrait, if executed well, beauty and creativity tend to go hand in hand. A horse is, by nature, one of the most photogenic of all creatures. The natural curves, textures and shapes of the body, combined with the beauty of the mane and tale, provide an excellent starting point for creating a beautiful image.
But figuring out how to illuminate the horse to bring out the graceful curve of a neck or the texture of the mane (or the sweetness of an eye) is where creativity becomes necessary.
As discussed in the last blog, achieving the correct lighting may be the most difficult technical aspect of creating an artistic horse portrait. But, although lighting can be technically difficult, it is one of my favorite ways to exercise creativity.
The basic lighting must be correct to get a technically excellent image, including the settings and positioning of the lights. But, beyond that, the best portraits use light in a creative way to bring out desired elements. One of my favorite things to experiment with involves the deliberate placement of shadows so that only a portion of the subject is lit.
For example, when photographing a horse with a long, beautiful mane, in order to direct the viewer’s attention, we might use only a backlight so that the subject is totally dark except for the outline of the head and neck. In that way, the textured outline of the mane becomes the main focus. I’m also fond of positioning a horse so that only the curve of the neck is lit, which accentuates the natural arch, one of the most beautiful forms in nature.
Photo Credit: Equine Photographer Maria Marriott
The final opportunity to apply creativity is during the editing of the images. One of my favorite creative “tools” involves how an image is cropped, again to direct the viewer’s attention to certain elements.
I’m not a fan of things done “half way.” So many times in my images you’ll either see a very tight crop with a certain element (like the eye) positioned creatively in the image. Or, you’ll see a crop with a lot of “negative space” around the subject, which also can be strategically used to create a certain mood or emotion.
From Photo To Artistic Horse Portrait
So, it is an interesting question about whether an equine portrait can be art. I think that, just as many human portraits are considered “art”, or at least “artistic”, the same can be said of the best equine portraits. As metioned previously - “art” is often in the eye of the beholder and what constitutes it is highly subjective.
Speaking from my perspective only… I believe that certain things must be evident in a photographic portrait for it to be art. These are the things I’ve discussed over the course of this blog and the last.
An image, first and foremost, must exhibit technical skill as evidenced through the photographer’s proficiency with focus, use of depth of field, and correct light. An image becomes a good portrait when it successfully brings out the personality and emotion of a subject. And a good portrait, in turn, becomes a work of art when the photographer successfully incorporates creative artistic elements to enhance the beauty of the subject or transforms it in some way to convey a certain emotion or idea.
Maria Marriott is an award winning horse photographer who has dedicated her craft to capturing the beauty, strength and grace of equines, including several series of photographic art featuring America's wild mustangs. Her equine portrait work has won awards in several international photography competitions.
Maria's work has been recognized for its emotional impact and intimate portrayal of these iconic creatures. She works closely with several non-profit organizations giving back to help equine therapy efforts and preservation of wild horses on our Western lands.