How Bob Tabor Created a Niche Making High-End Horse Portraits

October 5, 2017

By David Walker

PDN: What were you photographing before you got started with equine portraits?
Bob Tabor: My background is as a creative director for advertising agencies. For 40 years, I worked with the best photographers and directors for TV commercials [at agencies including] Doyle Dane Bernbach, Wells Rich Greene, and JWT.

PDN: How did your work as a creative director influence your photographic style?
B.T.: In my print advertising work, the negative space was very important, in the way I would crop an object, and the way your eye would find that object as the most important focal point on the page. I do the same thing now when I [create] a photograph. It’s usually focused around the body language of the animal, and the eyes, and that’s what tells the story.

PDN: You show the horses on perfectly clean backgrounds, either black or blown-out white.
B.T.: Yes, because any color distracts from the storyline, and all of my photographs are taken at the worst time of day [in] bright light. These 1,000-pound animals become sculptures to me, and I look to find the positive and negative space with the animal, from the lighting. I take out the background [because] it’s distracting. I’m not selling real estate. I’m selling the emotion, the soul, of that horse.

PDN: Do you mean you take out the background in post?
B.T.: Yes, all in post. I don’t want to use any lights, I don’t want to use any background paper or anything that [could] make the animal uncomfortable. In fact, before I photograph the horse, I’m already playing with my camera. I let him hear the shutter sounds so when I hold the camera up to his eye, or very close to his face, he’s not frightened.

© Bob Tabor

Clients hire him to capture “the emotion, the soul, of that horse,” he says, a job that might take several days. © Bob Tabor

PDN: What camera and lenses do you use?
B.T.: I [use] the 5D Mark II and a few different lenses, but 90 percent of my work is with the 70-200. I love the way it brings everything in to me, and the way it flattens everything out. It’s so graphic, and so simple.

PDN: What’s a typical shoot like? Do you have a limited amount of time?
B.T.: I may see something in the horse immediately and capture it in the first half hour, or I may be back two or three days. The horse may be having a bad day, he may be a little uncomfortable. So I allocate a lot of time.

PDN: Is the horse wrangling a challenge?
B.T.: There’s always somebody from the stable around [to help]. I need somebody with me that really has the background knowledge of the horse.

PDN: Can you describe the clients and markets you have?
B.T.: It’s horse owners who love their animals. I’ve flown or driven to all 50 states. And my work is [displayed] at Ralph Lauren [retail stores] on four continents.

PDN: How did you get your work into Ralph Lauren stores?
B.T.: When I was showing some prints to a stable manager, a gentleman walked in and saw the photographs. He said, “They’re beautiful, I love them.” He was a Ralph Lauren home designer, and that opened up doors for me.

PDN: Is that what got you started shooting commissions?
B.T.: I was doing a little bit of commission work before that, but the commissions outside the New York area have blossomed since 2010, when people started seeing [my work] in Ralph Lauren shops.

PDN: What other marketing do you do
B.T.: I started to show my work in some of the galleries on the east end of Long Island, and the volume of the [residential] walls that are out here, led me to be successful [with] images 7 feet wide, 8 feet wide, 10 feet wide. So I branched out to other galleries around the country.

© Bob Tabor

When shooting a commission, Tabor says there is “a commitment on both [sides]—I know that I have to come through and capture the personality of the horse, and there’s a commitment on the part of the person who hires me.” © Bob Tabor

PDN: How many galleries represent you?
B.T.: I have galleries in Dallas and Houston. I just broke up with a gallery in Aspen. [I’m with] Emmanuel Fremin Gallery in Chelsea [New York City], and Chase Edwards Contemporary in Bridgehampton, New York.

I also sell through two design shops that sell to decorators. I would say 60 percent of my fine-art sales are through designers, decorators and architects that see my work and bring it to clients.

PDN: Who are their clients?
B.T.: The majority would be residential, but also hotels and corporate offices.

PDN: How did you build your relationships with the designers?
B.T.: People see work in other peoples’ homes. I get calls out of the blue from my website, from all over the world. It’s mainly word of mouth.

PDN: What do you get for a print sold in a gallery?
B.T.: For an average size print, which is 40 x 60, it would retail for $15,000, with larger ones going into the $20,000-plus range.

PDN: I notice your price for a commissioned horse portrait is $18,000. How did you come up with that number?
B.T.: It’s a few thousand dollars more than what you would pay to buy a print in a gallery. [That fee is] a commitment on both [sides]—I know that I have to come through and capture the personality of the horse, and there’s a commitment on the part of the person who hires me [that wouldn’t exist on a spec shoot]. There’s also another aspect of this: I’m of the Jewish faith; 18 is chai, which is a lucky number.

PDN: What’s the most challenging aspect of this niche?
B.T.: Someone with an unsophisticated eye will say, “Oh, that’s beautiful, it will go great over my white couch in my living room.” Then it’s “Oh my god, why is it $22,000? I’ve seen stuff for $600.” That’s a problem. For a sophisticated eye, it’s not a problem.

PDN: For other photographers interested in equine photography, what would be your advice?
B.T.: Go out and photograph. Don’t be frightened to shoot in the bright light, don’t read the manuals that say you shouldn’t be shooting [in mid-day light]. Do it! Don’t be frightened to make mistakes. Learn from them.

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