The Chicago Tribune
Features -- Mary Daniels

By glorifying the horse in his fresh and personal way, Robert Vavra has become an icon in his own lifetime.

When Delacourt Press needs a cover shot for Nicholas Evans’ novel, The Horse Whisperer…

When Max Factor, Jordache, Roche, Renault or Revlon needs an artistic horse image for an advertisement…

When the Russian Republics need 24 horse photographs for postage stamps, their first choice—their only choice—is Vavra.

Universally acclaimed as the world’s premier photographer of equines, Vavra is the author of 38 books accounting for more than 3,000,000 volumes in print in eight languages.

Novelist James A. Michener once wrote of him: “Though equus has fired the imaginations of painters from Leonardo da Vinci, Velazquez, Goya and Picasso, still, in the history of photography, no cameraman has recorded the horse with such excitement and personal style as has Robert Vavra. His images are works of art which are a joy to see because they evoke the inner nature of the horse.”

Beginning with Equus in 1977, his books have been praised by The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London, Newsweek, Cosmopolitan, CNN, PBS, and Good Morning America.

He’s had over 100 one-man gallery and museum shows in America and Europe.

His film work includes Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, and The Horse Whisperer, for which he was a creative advisor for Robert Redford.

Vavra’s life has been—and is—as exciting, glamorous and linked to nature as are his bestselling books.

In his pursuit of the adage, “Follow your dreams, for as you dream, so shall you become,” he has managed to fit several lifetimes into one.

He’s lived with Maasai warriors and traveled with Spanish matadors, sharing their dreams, their fears and their valor.

He’s strolled Seville’s jasmine-scented darkness with Candice Bergen, with Ursula Andress, and with Bo Derek.

He’s sat in the African night with Sir Wilfred Thesiger, named “the greatest explorer of the twentieth century” by National Geographic.

He’s photographed, and has been photographed by, Hitler’s genius filmmaker, Leni Riefenstahl.

He’s tailed a shy kudu antelope for months until finally they walked side by side across the veldt.

He was the photographer chosen by Michener to illustrate the nonfiction Iberia, more than a year on The New YorkTimes bestseller list.

He’s had a six-foot black mamba snake slither over his boot tips.

He’s dined with Jean Renoir and had a sketch done for him by Jean Cocteau.

He’s eaten hot dogs with sculptor George Stanley, creator of Hollywood’s Oscar statuette, and lunched on hamburgers with Monopoly’s inventor (from Baltic to Boardwalk) Charles Darrow.

He’s sipped fresh cow blood with Maasai maidens, and cocktails with the Duponts, Wrigleys and Hearsts.

He’s had a book on power walking dedicated to him by Mr. Universe, Steve Reeves, who was the early 1960s biggest box office star as Hercules.

He was a drinking buddy of Lawrence ofArabias Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

He’s whistled “Some Enchanted Evening” to Mary Martin and sung off key to Miklos Rozsa, Elmer Bernstein, Basil Poledorus, and Maurice Jarre.

Alone, armed only with a camera, he stood his ground during the charges of a dozen bull elephants that stopped with tusks swinging in billows of dust a few feet away.

He’s watched gliding seagulls with Jonathan Livingston Seagull author Richard Bach, and strolled through the golden light of early morning with legendary Life magazine photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Unarmed, he leaped from a tree in Kenya to face, alone, a wounded Cape buffalo, Africa’s most dangerous big game animal, in order to save a friend whose back had been broken by the buffalo’s attack—a rescue unheard of in the annals of human/big five animal encounters.

He’s the author of Tiger Flower and Lion and Blue, listed by The New York Times book review as among the top ten children’s books of all time with most adult appeal.

He’s had a peeing contest with Ernest Hemingway and partied with Ava Gardner and Orson Welles.

He’s been godfather for a Maasai youth’s passage to manhood, cooked bull’s tail stew for Charlton Heston, and ladled bouillabaisse with Francoise Gilot and Jonas Salk.

His eye and being have been described by renowned lawyer Gerry Spence: “I just saw Vavra's book…and I’ve never seen anything that contains so much beauty. It’s as if his soul is laid out there, and it’s a beautiful soul.”

He’s waded the marshes of the Guadalquivir River alongside Spanish fighting bulls, one of which broke his ribs and leg, and sloshed through the leech-infested waters of the Camargue, studying French wild horses.

He’s had tea with Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing and lemonade with famed paleontologist Mary Leakey.

His photographs have appeared in magazines from Stern to Geo to Sports Illustrated to Playboy to Life, which recently included one of his pictures in a book surveying the most important images of its 70-year history.

He’s discussed art with actor Edward G. Robinson and traded quips with children’s author Dr. Seuss.

He’s been accepted by a wild baboon tribe, traveling day after day with them across the African savannah from sunrise to moonrise, once sitting shoulder to shoulder as they watched a violent battle between a puff adder and a spitting cobra.

Princess Grace of Monaco, James Michener, Sir Yehudi Menuhin, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Prince Bernard of the Netherlands and Sir Peter Ustinov have written prefaces for his books.

He’s fought Spanish fighting bulls and on one occasion, as the horns grazed his chest, “Valiente! Muy valiente!” proclaimed legendary matador Juan Belmonte, Hemingway’s hero and protagonist of Death in the Afternoon and The Sun Also Rises.

His writing has been praised by Norman Mailer, Rex Reed and Paul Theroux.

John Wayne, The King Ranch, and the Maharajah of Cooch Behjar have been patrons of his work.

Jane Goodall and William Shatner have introduced his documentary motion picture on primitive equine behavior, the culmination of 20 years of research.

He’s paid for the education of several Maasai children and financed the building of a school in Mexico, where, since its construction, 10,000 boys and girls have learned to read and write.

Some might think destiny had big plans for him early on: at age five he sat on western movie star Gene Autry’s knee while being serenaded with “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

But life went into high gear when Vavra, at the age of 23, in 1958, set out for Spain, as a nobody and knowing no one there, with $300 in his pocket and a one-way ticket, to try and realize his boyhood dreams.

Before the old Italian ship, The Valcania, reached the Iberian Peninsula, the adventure had begun. After climbing from steerage into second class and then scaling the barrier into first class, Vavra crashed a party to rendezvous with a girl he had met on the dock in New York. Before they finished their first dance, he was sternly ushered back down into the bowels of the ship to rejoin his fifteen penniless bunk mates.

From then on, like a force of Nature, there was no holding him back.

-- Features, Mary Daniels, The Chicago Tribune


 

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