How Bob Tabor Created a Niche Making High-End Horse Portraits
October 5, 2017
Bob Tabor takes commissions for portraits of horses and sells fine-art prints in galleries across the U.S. His work is also on view in Ralph Lauren retail stores around the world.
Tabor removes background information 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," says Tabor.
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.
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.
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.