Reprint of article - CHICAGO TRIBUNE
November 15, 2001

Photographer Vavra is
Back in Harness

By Mary Daniels
Tribune staff writer

In 1995, Robert Vavra, acknowledged as the world's premier horse photographer, decided there would be no more horse books under his byline. He was quitting at the top of his game.

Beginning with the best-selling "Equus: The Creation of a Horse" (1977), Vavra revolutionized horse photography. Instead of the horse-with-head-over-fence photos seen ubiquitously, his horses ran free, unencumbered by saddle or bridle, courting, breeding, growing up in a world depicted as all their own. They were romantic, powerful, mysterious- horses straight out of atavistic myth. As a result, the images also ran free across the imaginations of those who loved them. Over the next two decades, Vavra photographed and wrote dozens of books, many on equine subjects, interspersing them with commercial images for clients such as White Horse whiskey, Jordache and Revlon.

A highlight was the book jacket image for Nicholas Evans' best-selling "The Horse Whisperer," followed by Vavra's becoming creative adviser to Robert Redford on the film of the same name.

Feeling no challenges were left in the genre, Vavra moved on to other things. But champions get bored even with self-imposed retirement, and like basketball legend Michael Jordan, Vavra eventually decided to get back into the game.

What lured him back to creating his latest book, "Stallions of the Quest" (LaTierra, 224 pages, $75), was the concept, a parallel comeback theme: retracing the return of horses to North America, after eons of absence, on Columbus' second voyage to the New World, in 1493.

 

In an outsize, 12 1/2-by-12 1/2-inch format, Vavra follows the journey across oceans and time, a story told from a horse's point of view during a 3-month voyage, confined and suspended in slings. One can almost hear the creaking of the caravel and sense the horse's passion to see land and taste green grass again. The arrival is triumphant, the stallions delivered by a swelling surf. Horses' hooves ring again on this continent.

Across the pages there are horses gazing across watery expanses, emerging from pounding surf, galloping across dunes, rearing against Mayan pyramids, running against a sanguine sky crackled by lightning.

Every page in the book holds a visual surprise.

Vavra uses camera angles no one has thought of before, such as upward from below a horse's throat, mane spread above his head like a nimbus cloud. One double-page spread shows only a white mane whipped upward like ice-flames, drops of water flung into the air above it like a spray of jewels.

The author, a horse breeder who lives on a ranch outside Seville, Spain, tells us he could never forget the question often posed by his friend, mentor and fellow horse-lover, author James Michener: Why did this splendid animal leave its Colorado home and cross the Bering land bridge into Asia, not returning to North American for 10,000 years, in the company of Columbus?

The book offers no real answers to the riddle of why the equine species left, only the satisfaction that a great artist with a camera chose to reflect upon the glorious return.

What other critics are saying:
"Vavra has been called the greatest photographer ever of that graceful animal form we call the horse...horse lovers will feel like they're falling into these frames."
--The Kansas City Star

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