One of the country’s leading portrait photographers has recently made an abrupt pivot in subject matter, from people to an equine focus. Esther Bunning tells us how galloping away from portraits has helped save her relationship with the genre
WORDS | ADRIAN HATWELL
To reinvigorate the creative energies, it is sometimes necessary to get out of one’s comfort zone. That might mean working with new equipment, going somewhere different, or wearing a brightly patterned shirt. Or, if you are photographer Esther Bunning, it might mean travelling to some of the country’s most rugged, isolated terrain to put yourself in the path of wild, roaming horses.
As one of Aotearoa’s prominent portrait artists, Bunning has established a career in dreamy, soulful portraiture that moves playfully between the real and unreal. Having built up a healthy host of clients, projects, and awards over the years (most recently winning the prize for Portrait in Camera Mastery at this year’s New Zealand Institute of Professional Photography [NZIPP] Iris Professional Photography Awards), the veteran photographer began to feel her enthusiasm for the craft waning.
Last year saw the release of Children of Aotearoa, a photo book showcasing Bunning’s work with children and young people across the country. The publication turned out beautifully and helped to raise thousands of dollars for the Child Cancer Foundation, but the arduous process left the photographer feeling close to burnout.
“I loved the Children of Aotearoa project, but it was so mammoth putting that book out; it just about knocked me off in the process,” she recalls.
Her solution was to step away from people as primary subject matter for a while, taking some time to rediscover where her passions lay. As a child growing up in Taranaki, Bunning was enamoured with horses, and this period of reassessment seemed the ideal time to return to that adoration, this time as a photographer.
“They are such beautiful, beautiful creatures,” she enthuses. “I’ve always had a love of horses since I was a girl, so it’s interesting to go the full circle and end up at horses again.”
The equestrian world is not without its share of talented photographers already, covering such diverse fields as racing, show jumping, and hunting. Bunning went from being a sought-after portrait shooter to having to break into a whole new field in order to find subjects.
“It feels like portfolio building all over again,” she says with a laugh. “It’s still in its infancy, and obviously there are a lot of very good horse photographers out there.”
But it did not take her long to catch the eye of horse lovers who were interested in something a little different in their imagery. Bringing her signature style of elegant motion blur and dreamy abstraction to the equine subjects, Bunning has staked out her own territory separate from the well-served horse-event photographers, with work she groups under the umbrella name of The Artful Filly.
“I’m offering something that’s really different; it’s that crossover between photography and art, creating a piece of work they would hang on the wall,” she says.
It’s not only horse owners and riders who are enjoying the photographer’s new avenue, though. Bunning herself has found the equestrian scene to be a source of rejuvenation. Her horse shoots offer a much-needed change of routine from portraits, which were primarily captured in the sunset hour.
“With the horses, I’ve been able to do a lot of dawn shoots,” Bunning says. “Horse owners will get up really early because they love it, and they’re out in the countryside.
“It’s amazing shooting at a different end of the day, being home in time for breakfast, and just fizzing. It’s such a cool way of working.”
That work also puts the photographer in mind of a genre that she hasn’t operated in since the beginning of her career: weddings. It sounds an odd comparison, but when Bunning explains that both involve moving with the action, watching for interactions between the subjects, and finding the most beautiful available light, it makes a lot of sense.
“The star of the wedding tends to be the bride, and that’s very much the same with the horse,” Bunning says.
At the Iris Awards this year, Bunning picked up a Bronze award for one of her horse images. Inspired by the work of the old masters, she wanted to reproduce the regal elegance with which horses were often depicted in painting.
It would not have been possible to physically get her preferred subject, a race horse, into the pastoral backdrop she wished to use, so — while generally preferring to work her magic in-camera — Bunning shot the horse and location separately and combined them in post-production. The aesthetic of bygone centuries brought back to life through modern technology.
“I was really pleased with how it came out; I have it printed at A2 size, and it just looks beautiful,” the photographer gleefully explains.
While the shift to horses gave Bunning’s creative routine an appreciated shake-up, it was in June of this year that The Artful Filly led her to the experience of a lifetime.
Through a combination of luck and connections, the photographer landed a coveted invite to the Kaimanawa mountains, onto military land on which few visitors are permitted, to photograph the wild Kaimanawa horses of the area.
The Kaimanawa horses are descended from domestic horses that, for various reasons, were released into the wild in the previous century. Coming from many different breeds, Kaimanawa horses are a variety of sizes and colours, but are generally known to be well muscled, adapted to their barren terrain, and often very inquisitive.
Their population is monitored and controlled by the Department of Conservation to preserve the unique ecosystem of the area. Regular musters to round up and count the horse population are conducted, and this was the event that Bunning was invited to attend.
“I was the little girl that lived for those family trips along Desert Road, hoping to catch a glimpse of those horses in the wild — and I never, ever, ever saw one,” she remembers. “So being able to go into this location was truly one of the highlights of my life.”
The photographer was additionally fortunate to be invited to meet the horses a day before the muster, ferried about the tussocky terrain by New Zealand Defence Force personnel in a four-wheel drive, visiting the various herds in the wild. And, to top it all off, the usual dreary cold was replaced for the day by uncharacteristic brilliant sunshine; Bunning’s ideal shooting conditions.
“Some of the horses would let us get up incredibly close; they were so patient with us. They let us into their territory to photograph their family bands on their ground,” she says.
The horses’ abiding nature allowed the photographer to use one of her very favourite tools at close range: a 50mm Lensbaby Creative Effects lens. With it, she was able to play with backlighting and distortion, creating an ethereal vision that one does not often see applied to wild creatures.
For the less outgoing family bands, Bunning was forced to shoot in a manner much less familiar to her: tethered to a tripod with a 200–500mm zoom lens — on loan from Nikon especially for the project.
“It’s such a different way of shooting for me. I’m not a tripod girl at all, ever, and I had to use a tripod with that lens, and it really tested my patience,” she explains. “But it was absolutely necessary and so worth it, being able to get up really close with those family bands.”
As well as leaving the shoot with a portfolio of amazing images and memories to be cherished for a lifetime, Bunning also made some valuable contacts at the Kaimanawa Heritage Horses organization. This group looks out for the welfare of the wild horses, trying to find non-lethal solutions to population reduction.
Bunning will be providing her images for its 2019 fundraising calendar, along with meeting some domesticated Kaimanawa horses for further shoots.
But don’t expect to see Bunning’s horse work popping up as a book or anything more than her online exhibition any time soon; the memory of her last exhausting publishing project is still too fresh. For now, she’s happy to simply enjoy the process and reap the rejuvenating benefits that come with a change of pace.
“I’m still photographing people, and I’m feeling that little bubble of excitement come up. I’m starting to get ideas,” she says with a smile. “I’ve had a few projects that have been put on the backburner for years, but I can feel my enthusiasm growing again.”
THE ARTFUL FILLY
To see more of Bunning’s work with horses, both wild and domesticated, visit The Artful Filly at theartfulfilly.com and follow updates by searching for ‘theartfulfilly’ on Instagram.