Photographer: Monica Stevenson

An Adventurous Childhood


My dad worked as the international marketing director for a pharmaceutical company. With his jet-setting job, we moved often when I was growing up. In fact, my parents were globetrotters even before my brother and I hit the scene. By their twenty-sixth anniversary, they calculated that they had moved and packed up thirteen different times. My mother developed a routine for putting things in boxes.

I was born in New Jersey, but the better part of my early-childhood years were spent in paradisiacal Sydney, Australia. My family returned to New Jersey when I was in the first grade before moving to Madrid, Spain for a year when I was in the fourth grade. My high school years were filled with adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico where I rode with the Club Ecuestre (horse riding stable).

Photography as a Career


Shortly before I started college, we moved to Atlanta, Georgia. I attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and studied Chemistry and Math. During my second year there, I took a class called “Physics 45” about the physics of photography. It was an incredibly popular class and the teacher was a genius. He had a great sense of humor and encouraged experimentation! That class turned me on to the possibility of a career in photography.

I later took a fashion photography course in Atlanta one summer. That tipped the scales and made me realize that photography was what I wanted to do. My parents were mortified! They were desperate to see me in a suit and pumps every day.

UNC-Chapel Hill had a painting program, but they didn’t have a photography program at all. My father had since been transferred from Atlanta to Ohio. So, I transferred to Ohio University which has a wonderful photography department. I graduated with a BFA in Photography, prepared for my assistantship in New York.

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New York


When I first moved to New York I worked for Albert Watson, who is still a very well-known fashion photographer. In North Carolina, I had made friends with a woman who was dating Albert’s son. Since I am the preeminent networker, I made use of that connection and came to New York! In the beginning, I was emptying wastebaskets and sweeping the sidewalks, but working with a master like Albert was a learning experience even greater than college had been. I later assisted a photographer named Chris Callis for another few years and then did some freelancing. I put up my own sign in 1987.

…but I found myself yearning for the simple communication that one finds when working with horses.

Working in New York, specialization is key. If you are a generalist, it is too confusing for the people who hire us. They like to know, “OK, Monica does jewelry and accessories. Joe Smith does people.” I gravitated towards still-life photography. Specialities I concentrate in are jewelry, cosmetics, and luxury goods: handbags, sunglasses, and shoes. I do a lot of beauty; close-ups of women’s faces for makeup catalogues. The work is essentially still-life because it is so meticulous. I also photograph liquids and splashes for beverage companies. I particularly enjoy that work because it is complicated and harks back to my scientific background in a way.

I work with some digital/camera techs who love constructing complex electronic gizmos and gadgets. They built a digital pressure tank so that we could literally open a valve and gauge exactly how much pressure would be given to the water and therefore calculate the size of the splash. We get really jazzed by all this kind of building and constructing.

The Equestrian Influence


The barn environment is literally 180-degrees away from the commerce and hustle and bustle of New York. Yes, New York is very creative and inspiring, but I found myself yearning for the simple communication that one finds when working with horses. There is no superficiality. The communication is honest and direct. Everything is pared down to the basics, and I find this simplicity refreshing.


By the time I had been in business for about five or six years, I started to get a bit frustrated. I had always been a horse-crazy kid. Even though I never owned horses, I was always at one barn or another—wherever we were living. I began to feel that the nature and animal part of my life was in too short a supply and was seriously thinking about enrolling in veterinary school.

I talked to my dad about it—my father and I were very close—and he said, “You know, that’s kind of crazy. You are a bit too old to go back to school. You will be in school forever. I don’t see you as a science type. You obviously have a fascination for it, but you aren’t really a scientist. You are entrenched in an art community. You are in New York and you thrive being surrounded by creative people. If you become a scientist you will be with research types, and that’s not your world. Why don’t you photograph horses?”

A lightbulb went off in my head. I can’t believe I had never thought about it. That was the beginning of the horse photography as a creative outlet for me.

Equine Portfolios:
The Medium and the Subject


Initially, I shot my equestrian work with a Diana camera. It is a kid’s toy; made of plastic with a plastic lens. My day job shooting jewelry and cosmetics required an incredible amount of concentration. It was very rigorous, rigid, and disciplined. I was photographing the horses on the weekends and needed to shed the structure of my commercial photography. This plastic camera allowed me to essentially shoot from the hip. As a result, the photographs stood out as being much less manipulated. They were less about the brain and more about the heart.

I try to make my equestrian pictures not look modern, the viewer almost has difficulty placing the decade in which they were taken. I like to think that my black-and-white work has a deep connection to traditional photography. I gravitate towards more “timeless” settings where the appeal is about light, emotion, and/or composition.


They were less about the brain and more about the heart.

However, this plastic Diana camera is much too serendipitous. Sometimes it doesn’t close properly. There were many times when exposed rolls of film would be ruined by the camera’s flimsiness. The risk drove me out of my mind.

I researched ways to re-create this romantic style of photography with a more dependable camera and ended up buying a Rolleiflex from 1939 or 1940. It is a beautiful little thing and seriously low-tech. In the 30s, glass lenses were uncoated, as opposed to the coated modern lenses that create clarity and truer color. The uncoated lenses give me flare, diffusion, and distortion—all of which I see as an added benefit, rather than a negative quality.


Then, I got another Rolleiflex. I decided to be modern and got one from 1945! I have been shooting with that camera for a long time. It is the kind of camera that becomes just another appendage—I feel like my eyes are inside it. To date, I have not yet been able to recreate the filmic and organic quality that I get from the Rolleiflex with a digital camera.

Zoe and The Color Series


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Until a few years ago, the horse work and my commercial work were very separate. The commercial work was full of color and the horse work was black-and-white. I wanted to start blending the two of them.

My friend Marie Yan, a creative director and a stylist, and I dreamed up and created this new color series together. She puts together the props and the look of the photographs. We were very inspired by Rousseau’s paintings and The Wizard of Oz’s “Horse of a Different Color”. We wanted to communicate a dreamscape.

The horse is such a natural thing. We wanted to create something that was sort of twofold: showing the horse in nature, but making it look artificial. The overall impact when the viewer looks at the picture is nature. Spring is full of lush greenery, Winter is icy trees, Summer is blue and sunny, etc. Yet, when the viewers look more closely they say, “Wait a minute, that’s a yellow horse, and that’s not natural.”

My current horse, Zoe, has increasingly become my “muse”. She is so willing to do whatever we ask of her and is very cooperative. This series is all about painting and color—and we actually did paint Zoe. None of it was done in PhotoShop. We used a large airbrush gun, usually wielded by Lisa Sacco, filled with body paint that rinses off in about five minutes with a hose to paint her. I bet Zoe thought she was being hosed with water. She didn’t know that she was being transformed green or silver! It would have been a riot if she knew that her color was changing—“Oh no! I’m green!”


We learned a lot about the application of the paint along the way. I get so nervous before these shoots. I love them, but I am terribly nervous the morning of just because there is no turning back. You only get one chance to spray the paint on. If you put your hand on it, you’ve messed it up. It has to remain untouched. Also, Zoe doesn’t last that long. Her patience is short, so there is this window of opportunity that is brief.

The series was photographed at the barn where I board Zoe. While shooting Spring, I discovered why skunk cabbage is actually called skunk cabbage! Zoe was tromping around in this skunk cabbage and it was just stinking. Also, skunk cabbage grows in the mud, and she hates the mud. She was freaking out, swishing her tail around and her tail was getting caught in the branches. She thought she had a mountain lion attached to her tail! It’s very chaotic.

Explorations in Video


With new digital technology, video is more accessible to the common man than it ever used to be. One of the things that is frustrating—the good part about it and the difficult part about it—is that shooting one picture at one-sixtieth of a second is hard enough. Now with video, we are shooting twenty-nine frames a second. I work with the philosophy that everything that is in front of the camera needs to be beautiful. I find it’s a steep learning curve to be able to make every frame gorgeous.

Also, when lighting a still-object or a photograph, the lights are on the edge of the frame, the object’s not moving. Whereas with video, there is that perennial problem where if the person in the film walks across the room—or the horse walks across the room—and we are lighting something artificially, it’s not an easy task. Video is a medium that can be very, very difficult. Yet, it’s exciting because it is all about storytelling, and everyone loves a good story!

For capturing the horse in particular, I work with a Phantom high-speed camera that shoots about 2,500 frames a second. It is fantastic because when the footage is played back, it is really slow. You see things that you cannot see with the naked eye.

Finding Inspiration


I try not to do one type of work for too long. I have to keep it evolving and morphing.

I tend to look at more paintings than I do photography, whether it be online or when I am in a museum. I do always go to photo exhibitions, but I am inspired by painting more than I am photography.

Whenever I travel a foreign country, I always try to visit museums and zoos. One of the things I particularly love about foreign culture is the accessories that go with the horse world. The commonality of the horse’s appeal is universal. It is not bound by language or culture.

I love the sense of design that is a result of tradition and the “form follows function” aesthetic. I love the tactile nature of the things we use on a daily basis—leather, wood fur, hair, steel—I feel a really kinship for these things.

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One of the things I really like about shooting in different countries is experiencing the artistry they apply to the tools—the boots, chaps, saddles, braids and the ribbons—it is fascinating. The Portuguese wear fantastic handmade chaps that wrap around with intricate laces and latigo. They are works of art in and of themselves. I could spend an entire day shooting these chaps.

I’m also inspired by fashion. I went to the Alexander McQueen show here in New York. It was incredible! I was bowled over by his seemingly incessant creativity and his historical references. It is interesting to see how artists of different métiers are inspired by similar things, and how they apply this inspiration to their art.

What’s next?


Recently, I have been working with Jim Zivic, a furniture designer. He is also heavily influenced by many of the materials that are equestrian-inspired. He works with a lot of leather and metal. We have been creating some projects together. We recently produced a collaborative show in New York using my photographs that he printed in enamel on large metal circles.

Monica’s collaborative exhibition with Jim Zivic

There is probably less black and white and more color, more high speed, and more constructions. I’m thinking of comfortable artifice, almost like performance art—capturing performance art. I also love collaboration. This color project has had so many people involved. I enjoy creating something with someone else. Putting multiple minds together on a project feels really good.

I would like to play further with the concept of Zoe as my muse. She makes me think and she inspires me so much. It will be some sort of project about transforming her into something else. I like the notion of transformation. We’ve shaved her and we’ve painted her. I have an idea for using jewelry or fashion elements; collaborating with a fashion designer and making some unique accessories for a horse.

There are all kinds of things I still want to explore! My brain is always turning and there is just never enough time!

I have spent my life as an athlete, an artist, and a collaborator, and that’s what riding horses feels like to me. It is very athletic, it is very artistic, and it is a collaboration.



Discover more of Monica’s work:

MonicaStevenson.com

Represented by Renee Rhyner and Co. | reneerhyner.com

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