The Digital Journalist
Silent Partners
August 2004

by Peter Howe

I first sat on a horse at the age of eight, and have been in love with them ever since (with time off to behave badly with girls and motorcycles during my teenage years.) The characteristic that I and other horse lovers find so awe-inspiring and humbling about these magnificent creatures is that they are so willing to sublimate their own needs and fears to form a deep alliance with human beings.

I presently own a seven-year-old Hanoverian, standing at over 18 hands (that's huge for you non-horse people.) He probably weighs somewhere in the region of 1,400 pounds, and doesn't have to do a damn thing that I tell him. Yet this powerful animal willingly goes into a show ring and performs the complex maneuvers of dressage movements simply because I ask him to, and also, it must be admitted, because he's a natural show-off.

Video frame by Dirck Halstead
Now imagine taking a similar beast, wiring a Vivitar flash to his neck and galloping him into a herd of geese while shooting pictures from a camera mounted on a monopod positioned over his head. This is just one of the many things that Lynn Butler has done during a more than 30-year photographic partnership with horses, and to this day she is moved by the level of trust that she has received from them during that time. "Horses," she says, "have an incredible sensitivity to our feelings and a trust of mankind that we would like to find in our fellow human beings and can't. It's the sense of cooperation and partnership that they allow and the freedom that you can get while you're riding the horse that's a wonderful gift to be able to experience."

As a child, when her army father was stationed in Aspen, Colo., in the days before it was a fashionable ski resort, she would ride the dirt roads of the area, and developed the love of landscape that forms the core of her work today. It wasn't until much later that she enlisted the help of her hoofed partners in her photography.

In Lynn's work, one thing seems to lead to another, almost of its own accord. She was living in an area of Westchester, N.Y., called Tarrytown. One of her horses that she had been showing over fences had been injured, and could not jump, but still needed exercising. She would take him on trail rides through an area now known as Sleepy Hollow, and as she rode she noticed several things. One was that the landscape was changing. The Rockefellers owned a lot of the land over which she rode, but those areas that they didn't own were being drained and developed to satisfy the ever-increasing need for suburban housing. This was having a profound effect not only on the land, but also upon those birds and animals for whom it was their habitat.

Another thing that she noticed was the difference between the point of view of a horse and a human: we see things from a lower angle and directly to the front; they have both binocular vision, the same as humans, and monocular vision, which gives each eye a much greater angle of view. From her position on the horse's back she understood this broader overview, and it almost became a metaphor for the unrelenting forward view of human beings, and the more encompassing view of nature.

Video frame by Dirck Halstead
The other element that has become such a signature in her work was also the result of natural progression. She was photographing from horseback in the woods one day in the insufficient light of early evening. The movement that resulted from too slow a shutter speed seemed to her to express her feelings about the environment. She felt it was a landscape in transition, and that the movement showed it in a way that more traditional documentary photography wouldn't. As she experimented with this she found that each gait of the horse produced a different form of movement on film, like a brushstroke on a canvas. The trot has an up and down brushstroke and the canter a circular motion, whereas the walk is more even. After 35 years she now knows exactly what shutter speeds work with each pace.

Lynn's career seems to unfold in an almost organic way with seemingly little assistance from her. This is probably because she is a woman who is open to experiences and who embraces serendipity. Take the way that she first came into contact with the Native Americans with whom she has done a lot of work.

The chain of events started in New York with Robert Pledge of Contact Press Images advising her to go to the photo festival in Arles, France, to show her work to some of the French curators. She did this with some success, and in the process discovered that within a short drive of that ancient city, there was an area of immense natural beauty known as the Camargue that is famous for its herds of wild white horses, black bulls and pink flamingoes. Geographically the delta of the river Rhone, it is also home to the Gallic equivalent of cowboys, and is sometimes called the French Texas.

Lynn and a friend drove through this stunning landscape and came across a farm that seemed more beautiful than the others, with exquisite horses moving elegantly across its pastures. There was a chain across the driveway, which her friend removed so that they could go in to photograph them, something that, had she been by herself, she would never have had the nerve to do. As Lynn was working a man in his 70s came up to ask them what they were doing. Lynn explained her love of horses and showed him a copy of the catalog of her work that she had on her. The man was the French film director Pierre Aubanel, the owner of the farm, and not only did he allow her to continue working, but he also lent her a horse from which to work, and introduced her to his brother-in-law, who owned the largest herd of the bulls in the area. The brother-in-law in turn invited her on a horse roundup. She was riding an animal called Éclair, and thought it was strange to name a horse after a pastry. She soon learned that it means lightening in French, and that he was called that for good reason.

Video frame by Dirck Halstead
When, you may be wondering by now, do the Native Americans come in? The interesting part is not so much when as how. One day she was working on Aubanel's farm when a helicopter landed. Its doors opened and several Native Americans descended in full tribal dress. They were there to be honored during celebrations of the Day of the American Indian. It turned out that Aubanel's family had connections with Native Americans stretching back over 100 years, when they brought the Buffalo Bill show to France for the first time, featuring its star rider, Red Cloud.

Her love of and connection to horses has enabled her to work closely with several tribes, especially the Esselen of California, and on occasions she has been able to photograph ceremonies that are usually forbidden for outsiders to witness. The horse is an important part of Native American culture; they feature prominently in the creation stories of several tribes; the Navajo has a horse goddess, and nowadays the tribes view the horse as a connection to their heritage.

Butler's work has been described as painterly, a subject in which she majored at college, and it is easy to see in her photography reflections of two of her favorite painters, Monet and, especially, Van Gogh. In the latter's work she not only sees the way that he uses movement to express pain, but also how his example freed her to undertake experiments in color of her own. If Van Gogh thought a tree branch should be red, then he would make it red. Like her, he wasn't replicating a landscape but, rather, expressing his feelings about it.

All of her photographic effects are done in the camera, and she uses a range of devices to produce the very personal color palette and feel that is peculiar to her style. As well as the movement provided by the horse and slow shutter speeds, she also uses cross processing, and pushing the film beyond normally acceptable limits. She even embraces the occasional creative accident, such as the time when she inadvertently left a roll of film on the dashboard of her car in 80-degree temperatures that completely changed the color. She feels that accidents give a spontaneity and unevenness to the photograph that the filters in Photoshop cannot.

About 12 years ago she started experimenting with different forms of stereo photography. Her grandfather's View Master wheels had fascinated her when she was a child, and she began her own stereo photography by buying an old 1953 Revere camera. She felt that stereo could capture the mood of a place and give the viewer the feeling of being part of the environment. Furthermore, if you wanted to see the scene in two rather than three dimensions you just printed one side of the photograph.

Her stereo work started her on the idea of photographing at night, and making the elements of the photograph move, be they people or horses. At the moment she is working on two dream sequences, which have been shown at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The first of these narrates the dream of a young girl called Lily who dreams that she finds out where her horse goes at night when he lets himself out of the stall, and with which animals he travels. The second is the horse's dream, in which he takes the little girl to his favorite, usually endangered, places.

Lynn lives in a small community in rural New York State. You would be tempted to call it a one horse town, except that she has four or her own there, along with fourteen dogs, consisting of seven shelties, five collies that she and her assistant Lotta co-own and breed, as well as a couple of Shar-Peis. She recently qualified to judge the last breed in dog shows, but it is of her horses that she speaks with most passion. She is clearly awed by them, by their strength and by their willingness to work with her, often against their own instincts. She recalls one animal that, to her mind, was as intelligent as any person. He loved to jump so trail riding was boring for him. One day she missed a shot and had to turn him around to cover the same ground and he was furious, but he sensed he was part of her photography, and so complied.

She likes to look through the viewfinder as she works, and has to put complete trust in her mount that it will safely cover ground without any assistance from her. She says of them, "Horses are meant to flee; that's their defense. For them to stay and trust you and allow you to use different photographic equipment is an amazing act of consent on their part."

If you ask Lynn what she wants the viewers to get out of her work she will tell you that she hopes the photographs will connect them to the landscape in a way that will make them appreciate nature and go out and experience it for themselves. "There are sacred places on the earth and if we can connect with them as human beings we ourselves can be more at peace and more caring and more in contact with each other." It is through her silent partnership with the creatures that she loves and respects that the eloquence of the landscape is heard.

© Peter Howe
Executive Editor