For anyone looking in on Tony Stromberg’s life from the outside, it would have seemed he had it all – a fantastic job as a high-end advertising photographer in San Francisco and enough money to live comfortably. But something was missing, and Tony found himself disenchanted and burned out. He began ‘searching’ for his lost spirit, and that’s when Tony found horses. The connection he has developed with horses has steered his life in a completely different direction, and he couldn’t be happier. His work is an homage to the equine spirit and to the profound lessons they teach us…if we are willing to listen. We caught up with Tony recently to find out more about his work as an equine photographer and the role horses play in his life. Have a read globetrotters…
What is your earliest memory of horses?
Horses really were not part of my life until I was in my forties. Before that, I took very little notice of them. There is a saying, “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear”, and that rings true for the horses in my life. I think it was about 18 years ago when I first started to “notice” horses, and they have been in my life ever since.
What does riding or being with horses mean to you?
I don’t ride very much anymore, but I love having the horses around. I love doing “liberty work” with them, where we are both on the ground. That can become a really beautiful dance between myself and the horses. But mostly I just like having them around.
What have horses taught you the most?
More than anything, they have taught me about authenticity. There was a point in life where I felt I had “lost myself”, and it was through my interactions with horses that I started to get clarity with my life, and with who I really was (or wasn’t). Horses can be like mirrors, they reflect back who you are. Horses also hate incongruity… if you are “acting” one way, but they intuitively sense something else inside you, they get very uncomfortable. That is why people partner with the horses for personal growth and self-knowledge.
They have also taught me about community. They are prey animals, which means they can only survive in a herd. The importance of the herd’s survival is more important that the individual needs of the horses, and they all work together, they all have their roles, and they are all tuned into each other in a very profound way. In a culture that is more about “get ahead of the other” and is based on competition, horses have taught me that collaboration is a better way.
Can you remember the first photo you took (of a horse) and if so please share this moment/experience with our globetrotters.
Yes, I went with a friend one day out to the country. She was going to ride her horse, and I stayed in the pasture with the other horses, and started taking photos. I loved it… I felt like the horses really showed me their true essence, their spirit. I feel like they put on a show for me, running around and having fun. I was hooked… there was something about these 1000-pound beings that was just beautiful and so powerful.
What is your favourite portfolio of work and why?
I don’t think I have a favorite portfolio. I have gone through many phases and many chapters with my work. I think it is more of an evolution. When I started, I just loved to photograph horses and spend time with them. I had no intention of making money or selling my equine photos, it was simply for my own enjoyment. I got interested in “equine assisted therapy” and took some classes with a woman in Arizona who had written several books on the subject. She introduced me to her publisher, and they offered to do a book of my work. I was thrilled…
After that first book (Spirit Horses) was published, I had the idea of focusing on more specific breeds of horses, mainly the “baroque” horses… the Lusitanos of Portugal, the Andalusians of Spain, the Lippizaners, the black Friesian horses. But that changed pretty quickly. The more I spent time in the horse world, the more I saw a lot of horses being put down for very lame reasons. It seemed like everywhere I looked, I was seeing horses being given up for auction, or basically abandoned because people did not want them anymore. It was around this time that I started to photograph wild horses, and got involved in the fight to help save the wild horses of the western US. After a few years of this, it became crystal clear to me that my next book had to be focused on all the “unwanted” horses of our country…. the ones nobody thought were beautiful or useful. So the second book, “The Forgotten Horses”, was really a labor of love.
I travelled all over the US, photographing horses in rescue sanctuaries and shelters. I wanted to show people the beauty of these horses that nobody wanted anymore.
What was the most challenging part of this project?
Of that particular project, the most challenging part was seeing the vast number of horses that were neglected and abused. It was also difficult to see what was happening with the wild horses, being rounded up by the thousands and put into government holding facilities. It’s a very sad thing, and they are continuing to do this.
What was the most rewarding part of this project?
Knowing that I just had to finish this project, and that I might be able to get a message out to people about all of these horses. I also learned that the neglected and abused horses also seemed to have a certain sensitivity and wisdom that was powerful to me.
What photograph in this portfolio are you most proud of? I would love to hear the story behind this image and why you love it so much.
I have many photos I like, and it would be hard to pick just one. But there is one photo I took of a Spanish mustang stallion with his long mane blowing back across his neck that has become one of my most popular. That was shot at a Spanish Mustang ranch in Wyoming, about 4000 acres, I believe. I was just sitting on a hill spending time with this stallion, with no agenda other than just enjoying the day, and a gust of wind came and blew his mane at the same time he turned his head around to look behind him, and I captured the shot. Lucky moment!!!
What is it about equines that you love capturing?
Their spirit, their soul, their true essence. You will notice that my photos are only the horses… never with riders, never in competition, never with saddles or any sort of hardware, bits or bridles. I like to capture the pure spirit of the horse just being a horse, not trying to “perform” or fit with the needs of the human.
What are your ideal photographic conditions?
Late afternoon light, the last hour of the day…with nice, clean backgrounds. I like dramatic light, so I prefer light coming from the side or from behind the horse.
How would you describe your photography style? Do you like to shoot ‘off-the-hip’ or do you prefer to plan?
It depends, I guess I would prefer “off the hip”. I think it is best to show up without any sort of agenda. If you try to plan something with horses, you’ll probably miss a lot of spontaneous opportunities. But that doesn’t mean I don’t plan sometimes, or set-up certain shots. I guess usually it is partially planned, but then letting go and being open to what wants to happen, or what the horse wants to do.
What camera and lenses do you use?
Currently, I work with a Nikon D750, and I have 2 favorite lenses… a 70-200mm f2.8 Nikon zoom, and an 80-400 f4.5 – 5.6 Nikon zoom.
For our globetrotters – do you have any trade tips in capturing equines in their best possible light?
They can be very difficult to photograph. Lighting is key. I always start there, decide where I want to be in relationship to the horse, and then I look for nice clean backgrounds without a lot of junk or distractions. Oftentimes I will play around a lot with slower shutter speeds to get some movement, or I will play with dramatic light and under-expose my photos. Basically I play, I am always trying different things. There is no real “recipe”, you just have to be open to possibility. I have been “practicing” photography for 37 years now, so I have developed an eye for light… I think that just comes over time.