A camera might just be a tool, but it sure…
I became acquainted with Tim Flach‘s work back when I did a tearsheet feature about the trend of kittens in advertising, and I’ve been thinking about his Equus project ever since. The series is expansive to say the least; Flach traveled to India, Utah, Iceland, Moscow and the UAE, among others, to explore the origins of the horse. As a photographer who focuses primarily on animal imagery, Flach is extremely interested in the anthropomorphic qualities of his subjects, and especially in the human reaction to the imagery. Much of the work he produces is ambiguous; the nape of a horse’s neck could easily be mistaken for the rise of a mountain range.
The allure of horses is undeniable; I certainly spent some childhood years sleeping with a velvet hardhat next to my pillow. But I think these images are extraordinary in their scope and craftsmanship. Abrams Books will be publishing the Equus monograph in October; I’m gunning for a signed copy.
I spoke to Tim about the work:
How long did the Equus project take?
The majority of this work was realized in the last two years. 180 of the 190 images.
How did the project initially come about?
The publisher PQ
Blackwell approached me initially, but it was actually that we’d spoken
years before when the publisher was owned by a different company, and we’d
discussed doing a project. They’d seen my other work and my awards. We
discussed a suitable subject, and as you know from the work I’ve done,
with bats and monkeys and pigs, I’ve always had an interest in the
anthropomorphic link between man and animal and the horse was a subject
that I thought would be accessible to a broad audience. And as you
probably know, it is very difficult to make a monograph that reaches a
broad audience and doing a book that’s themed around a subject matter
is much easier. And I thought that it was probably a good stage in my
career to actually have an extended period working around the
challenge of one subject; I have a tendency to be quite nomadic, which
is to say I pick a subject for a few days and then I move on to another
subject. Well, you don’t penetrate much by doing that. In the case of the horse book,
I would like to think that I looked at the very way that consciousness
is linked to that species, and how was that determined, and how that
stretches right back to paleolithic times.
How were you able to afford it?
The publisher gave me a nominal advance, which wouldn’t really even cover the
people helping with production. Essentially, I funded it by doing
advertising in between. You have to be disciplined and strategic. I
researched it and prioritized. For example, when I learned that there were Zonkeys and
Zorses, I chased that idea, and found out where I could shoot them.
Tell me more about the Zonkey and the Zorse. I really love those images.
Oh yes, the crossbreeds. The reason I approached them is that they’re
animals that can’t breed on. You know, we cross breed a donkey and a horse to
make a mule, and it can’t breed on. But the
donkey has a function– basically it has low-mileage if you talk about
food against how much work it does. So a mule is an efficient breed. We have it because we don’t have to give
it a lot of food, and it’s sure-footed and it’s strong. Well, a Zonkey
and a Zorse, which are other crossbreeds, don’t have any of those
attributes. They’re merely done because man can do it, and we fancy the
exotic. And their mentality is totally schizophrenic; I mean, they’re
not stable, you can’t ride them. The point is, they’re bred because
people can breed them, not because they have any logical function. I
think it really brings in to question why man is doing these things.
What was is favorite image from the project?
I don’t know, I have images which I think were rewarding which I didn’t
expect; I mean, I quite like the blind eye, for example. I feel very
pleased with the one that we call “Chestnut Window”, which is this horse
against a window where it kind of looks like a fake window, but it’s
actually a real landscape. We lit it to be quite ambiguous. It looks like it’s been retouched. The
embryos I think do some interesting things, and the horse that was
shot going down the track at thirty miles an hour, frozen, where you can see
the veins and everything. Or the one where
I put on a scuba kit and shot the horse under water. It looks evocative
of a Rothko painting. There are certain images where it’s less about
the interesting photography; sometimes there’s something almost teddy
bear-like about the horses.
Why did you choose to shoot embryos?
The embryos, the reason the embryos are there– it’s not all about
having images for the aesthetic, I mean, they are aesthetic, but for
some people they’re not easy to look at. But the thing about them– one
of them is circular, it looks like a
round planet. Well, that’s a live embryo; it was moved from one horse
from another so they could save the valuable horse (whose genes it
carries) so it could carry on
playing polo or showing. They want to breed with the best horse, but don’t
want to get held up with a pregnancy. I shot this in embryonic fluid.
This reason I photographed it isn’t just because it looks like a planet
and a beginning, and at thirty days look like baby (and all mammals at
this stage tend to look similar), but I’m interested in how it is one
thing but also looks like something else. I’m very interested in this
idea of ambiguity. The neck of a horse can look like a mountain, but it
still looks like a horse.
Why do you think horses are so evocative for people?
We initially hunted the horse, and it was our main
food source in Europe; early man painted and drew the horse first.
Their consciousness was surrounded by the horse before we even
domesticated it. If you think of that, it’s so rooted in our
consciousness, which is one reason why this was a subject to be taken.
But also, if you think of most of the photographers who do horse
pictures do treat it with a lot of sentiment. And I think the danger of
that of course is that it only offers light and not dark, like a bag of
sweets. When the foal is sort of running through its buttercup
field and there’s some dialogue in the book talking about how it’s a
“lovely day and it’s running to its mummy” or something, I think it at
some point sort of clocks people out.
I love the closeup image of the horse’s eye. It’s very dark, except for the lashes….
I found that one rather curious, because that was done for one of
the members of the Abu Dhabi royal family. It was one of their horses.
And His Highness keeps showing this picture, which is on his wall, to
his guests who come in. And out there, they keep saying it looks like a
jellyfish. And he finds it amusing to ask people what they think and
they usually say “jellyfish”. I think that must be a cultural thing. No one over here thinks it looks like a jellyfish.
More after the jump!
This is such an expansive project, how did you choose what to shoot? Did you have a large production team?
I have someone in the studio coordinating flights, but not more than that. I used a very simple technique. If you take a subject like horses, as you probably know, there are many photographers– I mean, there are whole networks of photographers who for thirty, forty years have been photographing horses. For me to come into that subject matter and make any contribution is obviously going to involve a methodology that is fundamentally different. What I did is I looked at the subject, not by chasing every breed and recording it, because for me that didn’t seem to be the point.
The method I used was to ask people who have spent their lives with this subject: what is it that really touched you about the horse? What is it that you remember? And as you ask people, they’ll recount stories or things they experienced about a particular breed or how when they were a child they rode a Shetland pony, and what it meant to them. Shetlands are very intelligent and they also have the tendency to be very challenging. Most people who become quite good riders often start out with that kind of pony. If you ask them which pony has significance to them, they’ll often cite the Shetland pony over all other ponies. So then what I did was I went to Shetland and spent a week literally within the Shetland islands to find the origin of each horse, and where it came from. So that you could be a child in an arena in Moscow and see a picture of where your pony had really come from and the environment that created it.
How did you start shooting animals initially?
It has two stages to it, really. Yes, I sort of grew up in the country and was probably not a naturally verbal person anyway, and animals don’t talk back, which tends to be easier to negotiate. But in fairness, I didn’t actually take pictures or have a camera until I did my foundation course in art school. You do all the mediums and it positions you to decide what art program to apply to. And within that, we had a week project on photography. That week, they sent me to a zoo with a specific request to make abstract shots with thoughts about composition and that was the first roll of film I ever took in a camera. And it went down well. And those images helped me get into the college of my choice, but I chose painting.
So how did you find your way into photography?
After graduation I’d muddled my way into being a press photographer or sort of PR/Marketing person (whatever would pay the rent; unfortunately I didn’t have a trust fund or a backer, I went slowly through that process for about ten years) until I migrated slowly into what you might call annual reports, and then into design and then into advertising. I started doing that locally and nationally, and they became global campaigns. Then one day I did an ad project that involved a twenty foot python and a vulture and the guy who brought the vulture mentioned he had a lion and big cats, and I thought “this is very cool, why don’t I get them into the studio”. That was very interesting to me, and was the start of me initiating my own projects as a photographer.
So it was your personal work that got you noticed for the animal-based advertising assignments?
Obviously the photographers who are proactive are the ones who can initiate what they’re really passionate about and direct their work, or body of work, certainly commercially. And at that stage I was frustrated at the fact that my work wasn’t taking me much out of the corporate, financial type of projects. So I initially funded personal projects and indirectly over a period of time I built up work from that, because I started getting commissions from the personal work that was in my book.
So what’s next?
Anthropomorphism and the human face. That will take the form of looking at the very elements of context for attraction and how we project values on pictures. And I’ll do that by probably taking projects and putting them back into research so that I can see how people respond, and then put them back to the viewer. It’s really looking at how we project value at the idea of aesthetics, and looking at that through photography. I have done that with the bats, where you sort of anthropomorphize. You can see how strongly they do that, the fruit bats. And the shots of my pig is all about how we respond to flesh. And so I might look at the relationship between humans and pigs, and things like that.
Do you own any animals?
I don’t, because I think an animal should be given a bit of space, and the idea of an animal in a small flat in a city doesn’t appeal to me. If I could give an animal a bit of freedom, I’d love to have them.
Did you ride any of the horses that you took pictures of?
I was put on a horse occasionally, yes, but I’m not a rider.