Racehorse on Newmarket Heath ©Ripley

08th July 2014

Ripley on reinventing the equine portrait

Leading photographer Ripley is exhibiting his equine portraiture at The Jockey Club Rooms on Tuesday 8th July.

How did I go from photographing Nirvana and Wu Tang Clan to photographing Big Buck’s?

My mother was an actress and my father was a musician and I think they expected me to go into music, but photography was something I discovered at around the age of 11. My parents kept wild cats such as ocelots as part of a conservation programme, so there was lots of exotic things to photograph. My dad being a musician means there were also famous musicians hanging around the house.

Growing up and starting to think of this as a career, photographing musicians always seemed more glamorous than tree frogs in the Amazon. In the 90s I worked for the glossy monthly music magazines photographing artists for the covers. Before the age of the internet, these magazines were hugely influential in launching bands. It gave me the opportunity to start to develop a style and learning post production techniques.

My career progressed from doing covers for F1 Racing Magazine, concentrating on portraiture of the drivers to billboard campaigns with David Beckham and Adidas. These all added to my post production skills to the point where I worked with a team of architects to create computer generated cityscapes into which I could place the subjects I had photographed.

Commercially I progressed to photographing high performance cars including Ferraris and Lamborghinis, but there is also a personal side to my career, alongside the commercial work. I was increasingly thinking I would like to do something animal-based using all the techniques that I had learnt.

When I started photographing cars, I wasn’t interested in touring cars, I wanted to photograph the pinnacle of the sport. With the automotive imagery, it was the same I was interested in photographing iconic, high performance cars. So when it came to horses, it didn’t even occur to me that I would go and photograph a friend’s horse in a field. It had to be thoroughbreds.

One of the most interesting things to me was I met people who had commissioned portraits of their horses and after five minutes of admiring, they would start to point out the bits that the artist hadn’t got quite right. It wasn’t that the artist wasn’t talented or an expert in their field, it was just it wasn’t their horse.

I thought I had these super high resolution cameras that would allow me to capture their horse exactly as it was and the experience to create the perfect landscape in post production. It seemed a happy fit.

When you look back over history there are certain ways a horse poses and is depicted. So my thought was how do I recreate that using modern techniques?

At first I thought I would just be able to get the horse into a studio with lots of lights, but quickly realised that this would not going to work for a number of reasons. So I thought how would the people connected with the horse like me to do this?

To make it as stress free as possible, I photograph the horse at the yard at a convenient point in their day. I use natural light and the horse is led up by their lad or lass so they are as relaxed as possible. I don’t use green screens, we just move around until I find the point where the natural light reflects off their body in the right way. If the horse isn’t in the mood, we can have another try another day.

The other part of the job is constructing the environment that the figure of the horse will be set in. In the case of most of my images including the Racehorse on Newmarket Heath with a Rubbing Down House, the whole picture is composed of different elements.

It is hugely multi-layered with the horse, the grass, the dirt track, the Rubbing Down House itself, the view Heath looking to the Millennium Stadium beyond and the sky all different elements that need to be bought together. The result is an image that has this sense of other worldliness, but if you blow it up, you cannot see the joins!

This work is the one that most closely resembles the work of the great equine artist, George Stubbs, but with a very modern take on it.