Have you ever come across the work of a new photographer and found yourself at a loss to pinpoint what it is exactly that prolongs your gaze and intrigues your imagination? That is what happened the first time I saw one of Kathryn Burke’s images.

I asked myself—is it the stunning locations, subjects, natural lines, lighting, and color that have me so intrigued? Or is it something else?  It’s clear from viewing just one of Burke’s photographs that the eye behind her lens is utterly unique. But whatever elusive academic explanation I was looking for couldn’t do justice to Burke’s innate ability, and what I love most about her work: her ability to capture a feeling, a mood, a moment. Combine it with the love and reverence for horses that we as equestrians all share and it’s a double shot to the heart.

After all, there’s no denying that one of art’s most powerful influences is how it makes you feel. “Just like we don’t know what people see when they look at us, or what they think when they think of us, we can’t really know what they see in our images,” Burke says. “They’re so personal. I can’t tell you what my images say to someone else. I would like to think they see the joy—just the joy of being, the joy of seeing… no matter my subject.”

What Kathryn Burke’s photos have said to me will undoubtedly be different than what they say to you or to others. As you learn more about the artist and her sublime work in the Q&A below, I hope you find something that sincerely speaks to you.

NF Style: How have horses impacted your life and when did they first inspire your work?

Kathryn Burke: Horses have come to define my life. [They] have led me to meet the most wonderful people on earth—kindred spirits who love all animals, but especially horses, and usually good wine, too!  I have developed lasting friendships with daredevil eventers, dressage divas, jumpers, and cowboys and gals, alike, who I cannot imagine my life without.

I’ve been in love with horses for as long as I can remember. I grew up with Roy Rogers and The Lone Ranger and Zorro on TV.  Once I saw Doris Day as Calamity Jane [and] that was it—I wanted to be her!

Starting at age 9, and for four years, nearly daily, I cleaned stalls and tack at a neighborhood farm—my first introduction to the English disciplines—just so I could be with the horses. I loved the smells and the energy and the connections I could make with these huge animals. That is where I took my first photos with an Instamatic camera, with the square flash bulbs! I just wanted to hang onto the impression of the horses as long as I could. I wanted to keep them, and through my camera, I could take them home with me.

Was photography always something you were interested in or did something specific draw you to it?

My father had a small, silver 35mm that wasn’t used very much, and I was fascinated by it. The Instamatic was good enough when I was younger, but in college, I finally was able to buy a 35mm of my own—an Olympus Trip. Gradually, I moved up to an SLR in 1987. I can’t remember ever not being enthralled by the idea of photography and I photographed everything, but I didn’t really have horses in my life again until 2000.

By [then], my passion for photography was starting to wane, because I was constantly running back to the pro labs, who processed my film, and asking them to, “Crop here…maybe a little there,” or, “Can you tone down the yellows? The blues? The greens?” They were very gracious, but it was frustrating for me; I had a vision that I couldn’t accomplish.  I wanted my pictures to look the way I saw things, not the way the lab techs thought I wanted them to look.

“The camera allows me to look closely, and in looking closely, I see the beauty. Everything has beauty in it.”

In 2004, my first horse, an Arabian named Ashton, collapsed with an unidentified illness and was in convulsions. The vet believed that he would not survive, but Ashton pulled through. During that same time period, I had purchased a saddle online from equine photographer Lynne Glazer, who is in Southern California. We started to communicate and she encouraged me to pick up a digital camera, which I did, and she mentored me in digital and Photoshop. She was a fantastic teacher because she never complimented me. She picked apart everything and I learned so much, so fast, because she didn’t coddle me. The first time she said something nice about an image, I knew I really had accomplished something.

While Ashton was recuperating, I took a picture of him with light coming through the bars of his stall onto his face. I processed it in black-and-white and titled it Ray of Hope. Lynne pushed me to enter it in a photo contest, which I won in the portrait category for amateurs. That was really the start of my equine photography journey.

You recently attended the Visel Photography workshop in California. Tell us about your experience and how that resulted in your most current and stunning photos.

April Visel has mad organizational skills, so she can pull off the impossible with myriad models—equine and human. She also is an awesome horsewoman in her own right, and she knows what makes a gorgeous image, so she handpicks her models and locations. Her effervescent personality creates a stress-free atmosphere, so we can just relax and enjoy the moment.

That golden California light—they say it’s magical, [and] I can’t dispute that. We don’t have that light on the East Coast and there’s no way to replicate it. It’s the light that makes the images from her workshops and, of course, the horses are some of the most magnificent animals on the planet and the riders are extraordinarily talented. Everything about the Visel Workshop inspires me. I am a veteran, at this point, and this year I attended it for the seventh time!

What do you think are the most significant changes to the photography industry in the last 10 years?

The obvious one: everyone carries a camera now! But also, we have become so accustomed to such amazing photography that it has become less valuable in some respects.  We are inundated day and night with stunning, colorful, vibrant images, so maybe we are becoming bored. On the bright side, I think overall, people are better able to recognize quality in an image now.

After your 30+ years of experience, are there still moments in your work that surprise you?

Absolutely. I’ve realized recently that sometimes, I’m asked to shoot something or someone that I’m not keen about, for whatever reason—maybe the environment is uninviting at first glance, or the person is someone I don’t know well. Or maybe it’s a high-risk job where I feel like I absolutely cannot fail, so that will knock down my enthusiasm a peg. But even though I go into those situations apprehensively, I always find myself enjoying the experience, because as soon as I start looking through the viewfinder, I see something I can’t resist.  A photographer somewhere said, “I fall in love with all of my subjects,” and that truly is what it is. The camera allows me to look closely, and in looking closely, I see the beauty. Everything has beauty in it.

“Accept criticism graciously and gratefully! Praise will never teach you anything.”

What have been the most significant lessons you’ve learned in your career that you still apply today?

Always be prepared. Be prepared to say ‘yes’ to anything, because it could open doors and windows you never expected. And I never depend on my camera to make decisions for me—I always shoot in Manual!

What do you think are the key essentials for young photographers that are starting out?

  1. Remember that the camera is a tool, nothing more; it’s your vision that counts. Old, beat-up cameras can make magic! Use your imagination, fall down, roll around, try something different, be yourself. I’m known for doing anything to get the shot, so don’t worry about looking foolish sprawled on the ground!
  2. Take pride in yourself and your own work without looking to social media for affirmation. Work hard, with passion, and you’ll accomplish great things.
  3. Accept criticism graciously and gratefully! Praise will never teach you anything.

Always busy with upcoming projects and adventures, Kathryn will be returning to California and possibly Europe in 2018! For inquiries, visit her official website, www.equiessence.ca and/or Kathryn Burke-Equiesence on Facebook. 

-Photography is the property of and provided by Kathryn Burke.