Photo Essay: David Sinclair
The former stage manager elevates his equine portraits by bringing the studio to the stables.
Texas cutting horse legend Auspicious Cat.
I’ve always kind of known how to use a camera,” says British photographer David Sinclair via telephone from his rural home. “But when I moved from London down to the countryside of Gloucestershire, there were lots of horses around. I went to a few polo matches and photographed them playing.”
As the polo patrons began to notice Sinclair frequently pointing his lens at the horses, they responded enthusiastically to the resulting photos and encouraged him to do more.
“At that time, nobody in the polo world had thought of doing portraits of horses,” he says. “They liked what I was doing, but I was really doing it for my own interest. As I had more contact with the horses, people noticed I was good with them. I grew to love them very quickly."
“There’s a beauty in watching them move — muscle groups, legs, timing. But I wanted a little bit more control than I’d had trying for action shots.”
So that’s when Sinclair, who had already enjoyed a successful career as a stage manager in theater and television, decided to bring the studio to the stables. He pulled out an old black cloth from his stage manager days and used it as a makeshift studio background.
“It’s 45 feet long and 25 feet high, so I bought some good flash lights and placed the horses in front,” he recalls. “I was actually reading the manual for those lights while working with my first portrait client. But everything turned out well.”
Standing in front of simple black backgrounds, his equine subjects are captured up close in their most peaceful moments. The photos can have quite a calming effect on anyone who appreciates the effortless beauty and grace of horses.
Sinclair credits his good fortune taking the portraits to his method of shooting the horses in their element. “They’re comfortable where they are, at home,” he points out.
“I let them walk toward the cloth, sniff it — I give them time to realize the objects with which I’m working are inanimate and inedible, and they’re fine.
“What’s important is giving them an easy escape route. A horse is a bloody big animal. I’m always conscious of its comfort and safety.”
Once the horses feel safe, there’s still the challenge of getting them to cooperate with the photographer’s vision. Sinclair has his tricks.
“Horses are as affected by sounds as visuals, so if you want to get them to look toward a light, you can scratch the light, and that’s a noise they haven’t heard before, so they’ll look straight at it.”
The photographer’s subsequent research into all things equine led to a fascination with Western horsemanship. Sinclair came to admire how Americans incorporate horses not only into their businesses, ranches, and sporting ventures, but also into their everyday lives.
Wanting to experience the American way firsthand, Sinclair eventually made a two-and-a-half-month trek through the West, taking photos and portraits in 11 states.
“When I flew into Dallas-Fort Worth, I had one contact,” he says. “And from that one name, I covered a vast distance and met so many great people, from the poorest ranchers in Nevada to the wealthiest of North Texas. I met people working with mustangs, ranchers, reiners, cutting horses, you name it.”
That first trip was followed by another monthlong stay in Sheridan, Wyoming, where he shot all aspects of the rodeo culture there.
Although the limitations of Sinclair’s travel visa and finances have kept him from returning since, Sinclair is hopeful he’ll make it back someday soon.
“I would love to spend nine months on the road going from ranch to ranch, shooting the backside out of the whole thing. In black-and-white, real people, more horses,” the photographer says. “Then I might be able to put a book together — a European take on the West. I’ve just got to bankroll it first!”
Visit David Sinclair’s portfolio website at www.shootshorses.com to see more of his works, from sideline candids from British polo matches to action shots of American rodeo events.