Photographing the Arabian Horse

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rabian horse photography occupies its own niche in the world of horse photography. The Arabian is a breed that attracts artistic people, often one might add, with all their attendant personality disorders; and we like to think of Arabian photography as far more interesting and artistic than other horse photography. However, this conclusion strays rather wide of the mark because the majority of photos are taken for commercial purposes: The marketing of most Arabians is based exclusively on their appearance and thus for most advertisers a PR straitjacket is applied to all published photos to ensure that every image on display is shaped as close to our ideal as possible. This restricts the photographer to a collection of stock poses, with the variety all provided by the lighting and background. Photographs of Arabians doing whatever comes naturally are rather thinner on the ground. Try to recall when you last saw a picture of horse with his ears back. Few photographers and owners would put such a negative picture in the public eye. In a global market where not everyone can see every horse in the flesh, a good portfolio of photos of your horse can make a significant difference to his reputation. And the public esteem in which he is held will affect his price tag. I do not think it an exaggeration to say that the beautifully lit portraits of QR Marc by Suzanne Sturgill helped elevate this horse from the realm of an exceptionally promising colt to a globally recognized phenomenon — with a truly sensational price tag. The problem with photography that affects price tags is that it provides an incentive to alter the subject, not as is sometimes disingenuously suggested for artistic motives but for profit motives. Digital cameras have expanded the interest in photographing horses by allowing many more amateurs to enter the fray, and gifted owners now have greater opportunity to produce great images of their own horses. Sadly, this expanded interest has gone hand in hand with the debasement of photographic currency by the use of the sophisticated software that comes with the camera. It is now possible to glamorize any living subject by removing imperfections and altering proportions to unattainable standards; something previously only possible for a professional studio in an expensive commercial campaign. While visual enhancement

A beautifully lit photo of QR Marc by Suzanne Sturgill.

may be acceptable for a fashion wear firm, which is marketing the clothes worn by an impossibly leggy model, it has to be regarded in a different light when the altered subject itself is being marketed. The value of an Arabian halter horse becomes intrinsically bound to his outline — and in the case of the neck and head, the most exaggerated outline is frequently the most valuable. Thus there appears to be a clear ethical boundary between presenting a horse to the camera in an artistic and flattering manner, and circulating images of an artificially created cartoon horse in a photographic medium. It is fraudulent to alter the outline of a horse in a photograph and publish the results anywhere in the public domain where that alteration may be seen and perceived as a real, and therefore more valuable horse. To do so with either show individuals or breeding stallions is to deceive


the public as to the quality of your merchandise and it would appear to flagrantly contravene advertising standards in many countries. Here is what the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has to say about advertisements by small businesses. “Under the Federal Trade Commission Act: · Advertising must be truthful and non-deceptive; · Advertisers must have evidence to back up their claims; and · Advertisements cannot be unfair. What makes an advertisement deceptive? According to the FTC’s Deception Policy Statement, an ad is deceptive if it contains a statement — or omits information — that: · Is likely to mislead consumers acting reasonably under the circumstances; and · Is ‘material’ — that is, important to a consumer’s decision to buy or use the product.” “How does the FTC determine if an ad is deceptive? A typical inquiry follows these steps: The FTC looks at the ad from the point of view of the ‘reasonable consumer’ — the typical person looking at the ad. Rather than focusing on certain words, the FTC looks at the ad in context — words, phrases, and pictures — to determine what it conveys to consumers.”


n plain-speak it would seem obvious that altered photographs contravene these standards by presenting to the reasonable consumer a “photograph” of a product that does not actually exist — and I’m sure we would all be grateful if someone with the wherewithal to consult a lawyer took some of the offenders to task. However, just how do you prove beyond reasonable doubt that a particular photo of a particular horse has had its outlines “enhanced” in postproduction without having access to a memory card as it leaves the camera? An entertaining scenario would be one in which someone turned up at an equine facility armed with tape measure, callipers, and theodolite to indulge in a spot of equine triangulation. Come a lawsuit, this might well be the

answer, but it is hardly practicable for your average consumer of Arabian horse magazines. Nevertheless, forewarned is forearmed and it is worth taking a historical detour through Arabian horse photography to see what was achieved before the advent of the digital age in the art of flattering horses. Our first scrutiny, of course, has to be directed at the indefatigable Judith, Lady Wentworth. Undeterred by the lack of technology, she painted little extra bits over her photographs to even up toplines, raise tail carriage, and increase the dish in heads. Lady Wentworth presents a case study in how to achieve world domination in the Arabian horse market by means of subterfuge, hyperbole, and propaganda. Excluding her reign, photography was mainly in an age of innocence, and many of the photographs from the 1840s to the 1860s were basic, side-on mug shots, much like those of Thoroughbred stallions today. A whole book of them made for more of a scientific treatise than today’s coffee-table froth, and it was rare that a photo was flattering. The art of flattery became vital as the breed “professionalized,” beginning in the 1960s and accelerating until the mid ’80s. Stallions came to cover more than just a handful of mares apiece with stud fees that reflected their popularity, and marketing became a necessity. Professional photographers cottoned on fast. The consequence is that it is far easier to assess the conformation of a modern horse’s ancestors than it is to get a simple side-on picture of a creature still living.

Stuart Vesty’s iconic portrait of Elandra. 395 6 ARABIAN HORSE WORLD 6 JANUARY 2009

Polly Knoll’s inspirational Ruminaja Ali.

There are many things that can be done in a photo shoot to make the horse look at his best. Simply standing the horse on the level or slightly uphill, choosing an uncluttered background, and getting some degree of animation are the three cardinal rules for enhancing a photograph. The most classic era for stand-up shots was the 1970s and ’80s with the Johnny Johnston and Sparagowksi shots that featured unfussy, clearly lit shots of a horse from a side-on view, with the horse poised and alert but not straining to within an inch of his life. However, even then angles were used to subtly alter the dimensions of the horse. Photographing from below elongated the legs. Photographing from behind lengthened the hip, and both of these means were used to good effect. Photographing from behind to lengthen the appearance of the hip was a practice borrowed from the Quarter Horse industry, where this habit taken to an extreme showed a horse with a colossal mountain of rear end towering above the rest of the horse as it disappeared into the distance caused one problem with Arabians, because although the Quarter Horse is supposed to be high crouped, the Arabian is supposed to be level. An obsession among Arabian horse owners for flat toplines made it necessary for all stand-up shots taken slightly from behind to be altered after the event. Tipping and cropping not only realigned the topline with the horizontal, but also produced two decades’

worth of magazines featuring horses with longer hindlegs than forelegs; and created the impression that there was not a single flat paddock in the U.S. Stand-up shots have become rather less easy to decipher these days, when a drastic increase in tension of the pose can radically alter the horse’s outline from the one it had in a relaxed position. There has also been an increase in popularity of the three-quarter view angle, with the horse almost facing the camera on an uphill slope. This again is a borrowed stance, this time from the Saddlebred, and it is designed to flatter necks by making them look as long as possible, as slim as possible, and as upright as possible. Add to this the fact that a three-quarter view angle of a head that includes the far eye gives the most exaggerated dished appearance to most Arabian heads. Thus we see a huge number of such head-and-neck shots today — it is an angle that flatters the head and neck of most horses. Thus, it is also the shot in which an interested audience can actually tell the least about your horse, since many of the shots actually show you only the underside of the neck and an illusory version of the head, which may or may not have a dish when turned to the side. Even when the shot is extended to include the body, the observer has little idea of the relative strengths and weaknesses of the horse’s shoulder and hindquarter, and few clues as to whether the horse has a dippy back. On the bright side, they can identify whether it has a level croup, has been gingered sufficiently, and what color it is. We cannot realistically legislate against this — just be aware that a side-on shot of the same horse might display a rather poorer creature than the three-quarter view would indicate. Or, it might not. Going to see a horse you intend to buy or use at stud is essential. The proportion of side-on posed shots, used as advertising for a breed that claims to be judged on conformation, is vanishingly small, and those in wide circulation tend to have something else going for them — for example, Stuart Vesty’s exquisite shot of the white Elandra in her Polish stable is an intelligent pastiche of an old oil painting. Over the 1980s moving shots also succumbed to a paralyzing uniformity with every horse approaching at the three-quarter view angle and captured with his knee at the highest point. Such is the triteness of this shot that every horse photographed in it has blurred into one in my mind. Interestingly, British showring photographs have the same uniformity, but at a different point in the trot — the one where the toe is furthest extended in front. There is an alternative to all this uniformity — the shot that defines the Arabian is the animated Arabian look, which creates far more memorable single images. As all photographers, handlers, attention-getters, and horses will attest, stand-up shots require absolute perfectionism on which leg goes where, and you do need a horse that can do a showring pose. Look closely


at many stand-up shots and you will see a slightly sweaty horse who has been moving his feet infinitesimally and then arching his neck and pricking his ears repeatedly and has probably had his “joyful” expression enhanced by a bit of ginger at one end and a one-man band in a bear costume at the other. The animated look relies more on the inspiration of the moment — and for stallions a second horse to provide the catalyst. An early favorite in this category is the face-on Polly Knoll shot of Ruminaja Ali, all flying mane and extended nostril; while two more contemporary classics are Scott Trees’s Escape Ibn Navarrone in the desert, and Gigi Grasso’s Amir Jamaal at the riverside. Maybe these photos don’t inform much about what the horse might look like standing still, but they are beautiful and they do remind everyone of why they like Arabians in the first place. All printed images, film or digital, are the result of subjective decisions about contrast and color saturation, and sometimes cropping. All require the viewer to “translate” from two dimensions back to three, applying rules of perspective to realign the image with a probable reality. Digital photos offer more scope for correcting bad light and bad backgrounds. Anyone who has photographed a loose horse can report that after making a decision about which side of the paddock they would most like to capture an image, based on background and availability of light, has had their subject instantly race round behind them to the worst spot and start snorting, blowing, and striking a pose! I have no objection to later fiddling with backgrounds and light to make the most of these moments, none of them intrinsic to the actual outline of the horse and thus his value. It would be nice to end this article here as a celebration of some of the wonderful images

of Arabians that have appeared over the years, but Photoshop has made that impossible. Currently so many horse/breeding purchases are initiated from a Web or magazine image that it is becoming vital for all purchasers of horses to provide themselves with the tools necessary to discern between altered and unaltered depictions. Unfortunately, this relies on making judgment calls based on our knowledge of both horses and cameras. The problem with judgment calls is that in disputed cases, whichever side turns out to be wrong can be punished by the law. If the photos actually display the true outline of a horse, then the accusers are impugning the integrity of whoever displayed the photos and their comments could be interpreted as slander. If the photos are altered, then whoever makes them available to the public, knowing they have their outlines altered, is committing a fraud. People do claim that they can decipher alterations to an image by enlarging it and examining its edges in detail. This is woefully optimistic. Unless the photoshopping has been very crude it is not possible to make a judgment this way; software tools are far too sophisticated and there is too much scope for a wrong accusation. Enlarging photos for examination purposes causes all sorts of distortion effects that may or may not be attributable to alteration. Only when the basic rules of anatomy have been breached is a single photo enough to be sure, and these examples would include an instance in which the neck and head have been tilted back in action shots. This gives a horse what at first glance looks like an elevated, graceful neck; however, a second look reveals a stargazing llama. Folks, horses do not trot with their necks in exactly the same position as when they are posed. I have included a nice example here, one laboriously constructed especially for this article.

Photos 1 and 2


he head of this “horse” has had a section of its face removed to give a dish and the tooth bumps have been removed. Ears have been moved in. The lower eyelid has been dropped, with the gap filled in in black. A bridlepath has been cleared. The nostril has been extended back. None of these alterations can necessarily be spotted without a comparison to the original image, but I would pay particular attention to all of them in making a decision. The enlargement of the eye downwards, which also shortens the appearance of the head, is a ploy that has been around for over fifteen years and one that I habitually check. The giveaway that

A contemporary classic: Escape Ibn Navarrone by Scott Trees.




this is a reconstruction is that the whole head has been tilted back a whopping 18 degrees and reattached with the crest in the same place, extending the underside of the neck to lengthen it substantially. I have to say it took me quite a while and a few experiments to work out exactly how this alteration was done, because whereas most alterations just shave bits off here and there, this one is reinventing equine anatomy. However many of these creatures you see, I hope they look as instinctively wrong to you as they do to me. If they don’t, and you think they look plausible, I suggest you buy a camera and take as many photos of moving horses as you can to prove to yourself that the spine of a horse, however long its neck, cannot accommodate this position. I finished off the job by flattening the topline and mov ing the tailset up to meet it. I then layered two slightly offset images over each other and merged them in the middle of the neck and tailbone to give an even longer neck and a longer dock bone. Repeat for the limbs. Now see photo number two — the gelding I reconstructed into Frankenfilly.

Uniformity of photos by the same photographer is quite a tip-off and definitely should set alarm bells ringing. The variety of equine shapes even reduced to two dimensions is quite astounding. Get a pre-digital ’80s issue of Arabian Horse World and examine the repetitive pages of advertising with horses photographed in the same stance with the same plastic halter and you will see this variation. While many photographers have a distinctive style of photographing a horse from a certain angle in a certain light that makes the photos appear similar, when the horses all start to look like clones with dishes and eyes in identical places, skepticism kicks in. Real horses vary. Then find pictures taken of the same horse at a different time and compare the pictures. Remember that it is only fair to compare shots taken at the same angle because more than a couple of degrees of difference of the angle can cause such distortion in the two-dimensional image that any difference you observe could be an illusion. The most useful resource you can possibly consult to run a reality check on any horse that interests you, or whose image you cannot quite believe is to find out if, where, and when it was shown and then use the Web sites that nfortunately while one photo may be more than display proofs from a show. You can rely on the integrity of these enough to arouse suspicions, it is rarely enough to allow one to come to a final verdict. Identifying culprits images and you can always find a side-on view of a horse that shows more conformation than you might ever get to see in an requires a degree of effort and usually involves a comparison of ad campaign. Just examining these shots for major championship photos. You can visit the farm and look at the horse in the flesh but you have to bear in mind that the camera can flatter, and that winners can be an eye-opening. It is useless to compare three-quarter head shots taken of a some horses are more photogenic than others, two observations you can again only verify by using a camera on horseflesh at every horse at different ages. A two- or three-year-old may have tooth opportunity. Your best bet is to continually compare photographs, bump protuberances under his eye that appear in a picture at this age, coarsening his outline. As these bumps subside, they either of different horses by the same photographer or the same disappear from a picture taken from exactly the same angle on an horse by different photographers.




A: If I wanted to advertise this horse, I would be unlikely to choose this honest but very ordinary and unflattering side view head and neck shot. B: I would be no less honest, but a little wiser, to choose this slightly more inviting threequarters view showing the far eye and with the neck arched.




C: I would argue that I could still label this photo as “conformation unaltered” if I cleaned this image up a bit — removing the power lines and moving the wall down, away from the muzzle. I have also attempted to do something about the dirt stains all over the horse by lowering the saturation, a grooming method I do regard as legal. However, if I start tidying the scruffy mane, I am at the top of a slippery slope as I am starting to alter the outline. Hairstyling is an area which is not outright deceitful, but is definitely straying toward an ethical bog. D: What I clearly cannot do is drop the eye, knock a hole in the nasal bone to give a dish, tighten up the throat, and extend the neck by shaving off a bit of the far shoulder.


older horse. Therefore, the same horse looks more beautiful and extreme in the older shot. I agree that heads improve and that the eyes certainly enlarge as the teeth in below them move down into the jaw. There are also tooth bumps on the lower jaw that disappear over time allowing the overall depth of the jaw to contract as the horse gets older. All this means that some heads can undeniably “improve” over time. This does not automatically apply to all Arabians, however; in some bloodlines the muzzle becomes heavier and coarser with age. Clearly, changes in the profile of a horse, in which a “dish” magically appears where there was none before, are not all Mother Nature’s doing. We all know that a horse’s face can change radically from foal to yearling — usually decreasing in dish and prominence of the jibbah. The dish can in some cases decrease again over the yearling year to two years of age. After that the profile does not alter significantly. If you think differently, think of the most dished heads you have ever seen on an adult horse and go find pictures of that horse at two and three years old. If all the other details in the picture confuse you, then isolate the portion you want to check and rotate all the images to the same alignment. Note that you either may have to ignore the nostril portion of the face or find two shots in which the nostrils are similarly inflated — a flared nostril will give a much bigger impression of a dish, and this is one of the reasons there are so many efforts made to startle the horse for his photo shoot. I would suggest that if you can find a horse who shows a significantly “improved” profile over time, the improved image is highly improbable. Finally, you cannot blame magazines for publishing altered photos: You will only be shooting the messenger. It can be extremely hard to detect alterations. It is not the magazines’ intention to deceive the reader — the person submitting the photo for publication bears that responsibility.