Kirsten Griffin is a fine art photographer based in Oklahoma. Her portfolio of sublime imagery reveals her affinity for the natural world, expressed through simple, often abstract compositions and graphic strength. Whether she’s photographing wave patterns and water reflections, abstract aerials or colorful flowers, her eye for composition and clean aesthetic unify the work making it uniquely her own.
This is true for the imagery I wanted to ask her about too; her photographs of horses. Griffin’s equine photography is simple and beautiful. She’s traveled the world photographing horses everywhere from the beaches of Europe to the ranches of the American West.
The image that first caught my eye is a portrait of a gorgeous Friesian that looked to have been photographed in studio. I wondered, how do you photograph a horse in a studio? It turns out you just bring the studio to the horse.
Q. How did you begin photographing horses? Why do you think humans are so enamored with these animals?
A. I didn’t grow up around horses, but I have always related to them. When I was a child, my mother took me to a child psychologist who told her that I was ‘wired like a thoroughbred,’ which was another way of saying that I was incredibly sensitive. This was before the term ‘Highly Sensitive Person’ was coined, but she intuitively knew that I sensed the world differently than other children. I was incredibly sensitive to my environment and to people, which are coincidently characteristics of horses as well. So when I began to focus on my photography seriously, horses were a natural subject matter for me.
My first workshop was with Tony Stromberg, an internationally acclaimed equine photographer. We met at a ranch outside of Santa Fe and I instantly felt comfortable around the horses there. I naturally knew how to approach them (gently) and how to be around them (calmly and quietly). I loved sitting silently in the grass just observing and communing with them. As the psychologist described, I am probably a bit more on their wavelength than on that of humans.
Humans have been intrigued with horses for thousands of years and there are probably thousands of reasons why. For me, aside from relating to their sensitivities, I find them visually compelling. Their form alone is gorgeous. They are magnificent animals, striking and so very photogenic. Aside from the visual, horses symbolize many different ideals, such as freedom, independence and exploration. They are sensitive, strong, graceful and powerful. They are iconically American as well as having global appeal. They are magical.
Q. Some of the photographs on your website show horses in their natural environments, but others have white backgrounds and lighting that almost looks as if the horses were photographed in studio. Were they? Or is this simply bright sky and sunlight? How does this clean, simple style relate to your aesthetic?
A. You are talking about the series of Friesians. Those images were taken at a Jonathan Critchley workshop in Friesland, the Netherlands. A large white Dutch sail was hung on a fence as a backdrop and a trainer moved the Friesians in front of it. The photographs were taken in natural light and the black horses against the white backdrop created a stunning effect. The key for this shot was that the trainer was able to manage the horse. If you are trying to do that yourself it doesn’t always work as well! I just tried recently to photograph a horse with a white backdrop at a ranch in Oklahoma and the horse had no interest in my idea. So I used my tried-and-true technique—get low and shoot up to the sky while overexposing a bit. That will also give you a clean look in a pinch.
I do like photographing in a minimalistic style and I strive to take images that are simple and strong graphically. It takes discipline to edit everything directly in the viewfinder and I’m always looking around the corners to make sure there is no clutter in my image. Deciding what to omit in an image is a skill that I am always trying to improve and it continues to be a challenge. Just like in writing, editing is the key to producing good work. It’s the balance between sensing what to keep and what to omit. It’s also something that I can just feel in my body, and I keep working on an image until I intuitively feel that it’s right.
Q. It appears as though you’ve photographed horses around the world. Iceland, France, the Netherlands, the American West… Are there favorite destinations for equine photography? Iceland is famous for its wild horses. Are they especially challenging?
A. I have been fortunate to travel around the world photographing horses. Sometimes I travel to a place specifically to photograph horses and other times I just come across them. One of my favorite places to go is the Camargue region of France, where their white horses are so popular. I’ve gone there four times for workshops conducted by Johnathon Critchley. He is a talented photographer and organizes wonderful trips. The Camargue is located in southern France, where the Rhone River meets the Mediterranean Sea. What’s fun about this location is that they will run the horses in the water, and I can tell you that it’s both an exhilarating and frightening experience to have a herd of horses running right toward you! For me it quickly became more exhilarating than frightening, even though it went against all of my instincts and better judgment. What’s so powerful is hearing the thundering of hooves getting nearer and nearer. It’s a raw, visceral experience and makes you appreciate the power of these elegant animals.
I’ve also gone to Iceland twice to photograph horses there. The Icelandic horses are much smaller than the ones we have in the States and they are super friendly as well. They have such pretty colored coats and their thick manes are fabulous. They are the only horse breed in Iceland, making them one of the purest breeds in the world, and thus they are very distinctive and identifiable. It’s amazing that the Vikings brought them to Iceland over 1,000 years ago and their bloodline hasn’t changed. It’s incredible to photograph in Iceland in the summer because the sun barely sets. You have around 23 hours to spend with the horses if you wanted!
A special place that Tony Stromberg introduced me to is Return to Freedom, which is a wild horse sanctuary in California. What was most interesting about my time there is that the founder, Neda DeMayo, insisted that we spend our first day among the horses without our cameras. She taught us that horses can read our energy and emotions and that we need to approach them with honesty and integrity. Because they can sense our intentions, I always try to approach a horse with a pure heart. I wait to approach them until I am centered and calm. I also don’t approach them with any agenda. My intention is to have a mutual exchange with the horse, meaning that I’m not there to take something from them (a picture). I’m there to witness them and if a picture comes out of it, then all the better.
Q. What advice do you have for a photographer who would like to try photographing horses? How might they start, and are there any technical issues they should consider?
A. My advice to anyone who would like to photograph horses is to take it in baby steps. Horses are large, independent animals who have minds of their own. They do not pose on command. It takes time to feel comfortable around a horse and for a horse to feel comfortable around you. I would start out by just observing a few horses and noticing how they interact with their environment and with each other. Don’t use your camera at this point. Just watch and listen. Just be with the horse and then the magic will happen.
Technically there is a lot to consider. You need to know your camera well enough so that you don’t have to think about your settings. Things can happen very quickly, and you need to be able to respond in the moment with your camera without thinking. If the horses are running fast, then be aware of how you want to capture the motion. Also, understanding exposure is key. When you are working in nature the lighting can change quickly, so you need to stay aware of that, especially when photographing white horses in the sun.
To see more of Kirsten Griffin’s beautiful equestrian and abstract nature photography, visit her website at kirstengriffin.com