From an innate horse sense to peppermint bribes, celebrated photographer Shelli Breidenbach has a talent for capturing the rare beauty of horses and other animals. We check in with the esteemed equestrian behind the lens of this year's Hampton Classic poster.
HOW DID YOU FIRST GET INVOLVED WITH EQUESTRIAN PHOTOGRAPHY OR PHOTOGRAPHY IN GENERAL? I was born surrounded by animals—horses, ponies, dogs and essentially anything with four legs. While they have always been a source of my unconditional love, over time they have become my inspiration as well as, in some cases, my muses. As a rider, I have always spent an unconscionable amount of time at the barn. When I initially began photographing my own horses, I was fascinated by their many angles, large-scale proportions and uninhibited beauty. However, no matter where I was, I felt that the background behind or around the horse was a distraction—an element that competed with the presence of the horse that I didn’t want to see. The process of eliminating that environment went from a very heavy painted burlap drop cloth to simple black-and-white canvases to complex, handpainted abstract designs. Incorporating the lighting I had used on some of my fashion shoots added another layer that enabled me to enhance their coat colors and eliminate shadows. It also created the additional dilemma of how to control lighting and a 1,200-pound unpredictable animal. Needless to say the process has evolved and changed over the past 14 years and, no doubt, will continue to do so as technology evolves.
YOUR IMAGES ARE SO PEACEFUL. HOW DO YOU GET THE ANIMALS TO HOLD STILL? It really depends on the animal. I am a heavy briber and provider of unlimited peppermints and baby carrots. Both typically make the horses comfortable and happy during their photo shoots. It also greatly depends on who is handling the horses, and their relationship with that person. I always prefer their owners to be on location during the shoots—and many times the owners are the handlers. But sometimes that can work against us as the horses want to be with them—and will follow their mom or dad straight off the set. In other instances, it takes the owners, the trainer and a groom to keep it all in place.
ANY OTHER TIPS OR SECRETS TO PHOTOGRAPHING ANIMALS? Yes—whatever you have visualized in your mind may not be what you get. They are animals, after all, with minds and personalities that are individualistic by nature. I find that if I am not getting the image I had wanted, I move on—and ultimately I get the image they are willing to give.
WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE HAMPTON CLASSIC? As a former Hamptons resident, the Classic has always been my favorite horse show. The venue is like no other—beautifully curated with a timeless elegance that speaks for itself. Local Day is an all-time favorite, an exciting kickoff for what is always an amazing week to follow.
WHEN PEOPLE ARE LOOKING TO COLLECT YOUR WORK, WHAT DO YOU ADVISE WHEN SELECTING A PIECE? If the work is commission based, I encourage the owners to select the pieces that represent their favorite characteristics of their horse or horses. I always provide my suggested edits, but only they know their horses’ true personalities, and the photos should represent that. If the collector is not purchasing a commissioned piece, my only suggestion is that they select an image that they love—that they will still be happy looking at 30 years from now, regardless of whether or not the walls have changed.
Photography by: PHOTOGRAPHED BY SHELLI BREIDENBACH, @SHELLIBREIDENBACH