Sculpting With Light
By Maggie Malson
Whether perfectly posed at halter, making cat-like movements in the cutting pen, or strikingly illuminated against a simple black backdrop, horses have a regal, elegant nature about them and the light in the image helps to tell that story.
For a retired equine photographer, Don Shugart, and an up-and-coming equine artist, Constance Jaeggi, the use of light has defined their signature styles and the way they capture the essence of a horse.
Figuring out what was missing from the horse photos he was seeing at the time proved valuable to Shugart, and his style of documenting the horse made him a highly sought-after photographer in the 80s, 90s and early 2000s.
“I used a piece of equipment called a pie plate, which fit on the end of a flash unit,” he explains. “I put an extender on the bulb to light up underneath the horses.
Shugart started using a flash when he photographed horses outside, even on sunny days, which was contrary to what many photographers were doing for marketing photos.
“People liked the way I lit up the horses because they could see up underneath the animals and there were very few shadows,” he explains. “You can see all the muscles and everything.”
For Jaeggi, her use of light comes in the form of studio equipment.
“In a way, it is almost like painting,” Jaeggi says of her studio work. “I am creating something from nothing, versus documenting, which is a totally different approach to photography. I enjoy that fine art aspect in the studio. I feel that I can draw out certain characteristics by taking the horse out of its natural environment and putting it in a very minimalistic environment.”
Learning about horses and photography
Equine photography became a second career for Shugart, who picked up a camera in midlife when his daughter needed photos taken for her 4-H horse project. From there, he photographed race finishes at Ross Downs, in Colleyville, Texas, and applied to photograph the Fort Worth Stock Show.
“I didn’t have a clue when I started photographing the Fort Worth Stock Show in 1973, but I applied for the job anyway,” he says. “I have always said that if you want to learn something, you go to the person who knows the most about it. I found a guy who was the best in the business. He got his cattle and people together and he showed me how to photograph cattle in the pen and at the backdrop. He told me how to shoot all breeds. When I first started, I spent as much time shooting cattle as I did horses.”
Shugart says the biggest challenge he had was getting through Fort Worth [the Stock Show] for the first time.
“You had to photograph everything they had — the cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens. The whole works,” he says. “You had to be a quick learner.”
Obviously, Shugart did something right as he continued to photograph Fort Worth for the next 30 years. During that time, he honed his skills and taught himself to photograph horses. His business began to grow enough that he quit his job as a sales rep to open and operate Don Shugart Photography full time.
When he officially retired in 2007, Shugart had served as the official photographer for the Fort Worth Stock Show, Houston Livestock Show, State Fair of Texas, and National Cutting Horse Association, in addition to many other horse breed world events. He spent his time ringside, capturing action and backdrop photos, but was also the man behind the lens, documenting horse legends and world champions.
When Shugart started out, he looked through horse books and at photos of horses taken for advertisements but felt they were not showing the horses to their best advantage.
“It is all in what you see, and what I saw was different than what everybody else saw,” Shugart says. “I guess that is the reason why my photography business was so successful.”
Using Hasselblad and 35mm film cameras for the majority of his career, Shugart says he purchased the first two Nikon digital cameras that came to Dallas in 1999, for $6,500 each.
“There are a lot of picture takers out there, but when I started, if it took you more than four or five pictures to get a feel for what you wanted, it was… well, that was just crazy,” he adds.
At the horse shows, Shugart put a sign up that read, ‘Something terrible happens when you use bad pictures to advertise with — Nothing.’
“That is exactly what happens whenever people advertise with bad pictures,” Shugart says. “It does not matter whether it is a cow or a bull or whether it is a stud or a mare. If you use bad pictures, nothing is going to happen. A lot of people, maybe half of them, will not take the time to go look if they cannot see what they want from a picture. So, you have to capture the moment when that horse or that cow or that bull is gonna give you its best and present it to the public. Lots of my customers have sold millions of dollars’ worth of horses just off photographs I have taken.”
For Jaeggi, who was born and raised in London and Switzerland, horses were always something she loved and admired. Like many young girls, she fell in love with their beauty and strength.
She found herself begging her dad for riding lessons and began riding English [style] at age 10. She did not love that discipline but later, her family found a place near her home in Geneva that bred Quarter Horses for cutting.
“I started riding with them when I was 14, and that was my first exposure to cutting horses,” says Jaeggi, who decided to move to the United States when she was 19 to pursue higher education and competitive riding. “The horses brought me to the U.S., then the horses also brought me into photography.”
Jaeggi finished her marketing degree at TCU, then hauled to National Cutting Association events for a year, winning the 2014 NCHA Non Pro World.
She had an appreciation for photography and her mom bought her a camera for college graduation. She started playing around with it, but it never seemed like a viable career option.
After winning the World, Jaeggi decided she needed another challenge. She had established J5 Horse Ranch in Weatherford, Texas, in 2011, and was working with horses full-time. “I realized then that doing something artistic was feasible.”
Attending the New York Film Academy and taking a photography course gave Jaeggi the basic tools she needed to get serious about photography.
“I was exposed to studio photography and that is what interested me the most,” she says. “I thought it would be really cool to photograph horses with studio lighting. I felt that if I could bring the horses into a studio, I could probably create something unique. It is kind of like a figure study, but with horses.”
Jaeggi built a simple 40×60 barn and used strobe lighting, black rubber mats on the floor for easy cleanup, and black backdrops. She began photographing horses at the ranch, using her low-key, high-contrast vision. While photographing unrestrained horses in the studio setting is a challenge, it is one of the aspects Jaeggi enjoys.
“It can be challenging because you cannot tell the horse to take a certain position,” she says. “You’re not entirely in control of your subject, but this allows me to give the horse room to express itself, too.”
Leaving their mark
While Shugart does not photograph horses for clients anymore, his entire collection of work can still be viewed through the University of North Texas Special Collections. Not only are there his published works, but also additional unpublished photos and behind-the-scenes images.
“I gave them every negative and digital image I ever took,” Shugart says. “People can look through the collection and see the history of how the American Quarter Horse has been photographed.”
No surprise, but what Shugart enjoyed most were the horses.
“Every one of these horses has his own personality,” he explains. “I have had some horses that I really did like. Heck, one stud started nickering whenever he heard my voice.”
When asked which he liked better — horse events or making ranch calls, he says it is hard to compare.
“Event photography is capturing the split second that the action happens,” Shugart says. “Whenever you photograph as many different breeds as I have, you learn how all these horses move differently. You have to get in rhythm with these horses. If you cannot get in rhythm with them, you will not get the job done.”
Shugart is enjoying retirement in Burneyville, Okla., with his wife, Jan, who helped him run his business.
“I had quite the ride,” he says of his time spent photographing horses. “It’s not every day a fella gets to go to work every day and enjoy what he does. Every day, whenever I would go out, I would think, ‘Today I might get the best picture I ever took in my life.’ That is the way I approached it.”
Jaeggi recognizes she is still in the beginning stage of her career and knows she has been fortunate to have had early opportunities to publicly display her work. After starting her business, Constance Jaeggi Photography, she initially photographed fellow cutting horse riders and their mounts and shared the images. By word of mouth, she was connected with the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame and was invited to provide an exhibition of equine fine art photography.
“Aspects of Power, Light and Motion” debuted in September 2017. She used a combination of client commissions and sought out horses to photograph that fit the vision she had for the project.
“Power and motion are two very descriptive characteristics of the horse that I wanted to showcase,” Jaeggi explains. “And light is a key in photography as it determines the mood and the atmosphere of the photograph.”
When planning a photo session, Jaeggi thinks about what story the image will tell.
“There is this ideal aesthetic that people look for when looking at images of horses, and it usually has to do with the horse’s attitude. They want to see great conformation, perked-up ears, traditional poses.”
As a cutting horse rider and ranch owner, she appreciates marketing photos that showcase excellent conformation and make her horses look good. However, as an artist, Jaeggi is not afraid to break the rules and bring out the actual characteristics that make horses who they are.
“Horses have a very wide range of emotions and ways they show their emotions,” she adds. “Their ears are not always perked up. There are all these attitudes you can showcase that are more natural to the horse. I want to bring that into my work, too.”
Horses have a very sculptural side to them.
“I feel as if with light and shadow, I am able to sculpt this scene,” Jaeggi says. “And I think — I hope — my work brings that out.”
Jaeggi began her career in the digital age of photography but wants to start shooting film as well, as it lends itself to the fine art element. She has plans for additional projects and an apprenticeship to continue learning her craft.
“I definitely want to gather as much experience and advice as I can,” she says of her future plans. “I love that I get to merge my two passions together.”
Sculpting With Light is excerpted from the November 2018 issue of The Cattleman magazine.