By Shya Beth
Monica Stevenson experiences the best of two worlds: She calls home the mountains and serene equestrian life in Tryon, North Carolina, while she also travels to New York City and beyond working as a high-profile photographer with brands like Chanel, Ritz Carlton Hotels and Sotheby’s Diamonds. What brings these two different locations and lifestyles together? It’s Monica’s mastery of her camera.
Although horses take a fair chunk of Monica’s time and are a part of her business, they have been a lifelong affair. “I come from a relatively non-horsey family, but as a child, when we lived in Australia, I used to sit on the fence and watch my mother and older brother take lessons,” Monica said, with a smile. “I don’t remember them taking lessons for very long, but the visions of the big German school horses, the jodhpurs and short leather boots and my mother’s black Jackie O. sunglasses have stayed with me forever and have been a strong influence.”
Due to the international nature of her father’s job, Monica moved often and to far-flung locales, including Spain for a year when she was 8. Horse and pony camp filled the summers in the Poconos of New Jersey, and school riding lessons were packed in with the Essex Troop in West Orange, New Jersey. By the time Monica was in high school, the family moved to Puerto Rico, and Monica brought her love of horses along with her.
“It was glorious moving around so much. It has made me a very broad-minded and curious person,” she said. “I’m able to adapt to situations more readily, I believe, and perhaps the moves gave me a more tolerant nature and most definitely it has given me a well-rounded urge for exploration, knowledge and influences.”
Life in New York
After graduating from Ohio University, Monica went to New York City and worked for several years as an assistant to established commercial fashion and still-life photographers. She spotted prints for Irving Penn, studio assisted for Albert Watson and then freelanced, apprenticing different photographers every day, before hanging up her own sign. Monica took a break from horses while establishing her own career, until a simple trail ride in Central Park filled the horse-shaped hole in her heart, starting her on a journey back into the horse world.
“New York is the kind of environment where, as a photographer, one needs to specialize,” Monica said. “I decided to focus on being a still-life photographer, shooting mainly jewelry, cosmetics, luxury goods and food, for advertisements and magazines, which suits my personality and skill set as I enjoy the fine details and working with other creatives.”
Monica balances her work with her love for horses and dressage. “There are many things I like about dressage, but if I had to cull it down to just one, I would say that I deeply appreciate the marriage of art and athleticism,” she said. “A friend of mine refers to dressage as ‘sculpture in motion.’ It’s this practice of making art with one’s equine companion that I find so fulfilling. The path to partnership, lightness, harmony, expression, freedom, contentment — these are goals I strive to achieve in my own artistic and personal life, so it feels like synchronicity.”
Monica now trains with Button Baker on her Dutch Warmblood mare, Zoe. After acquiring Zoe at 3 years old and with two weeks under saddle, Monica now shows Zoe at the FEI level and has her eyes set on grand prix with the help of several trainers she has worked with over the years.
Not only is Zoe great in the arena, but she also more than tolerates Monica’s photographer side. “She has been my muse and model for photo shoots many times over the years, and most of these have been quite creative,” she said. “So many times, in fact, that when I approach, I can see her roll her eyes and say, ‘Uh-oh. What’s she going to make me wear this time?’”
Career and Riding
Balancing her commercial photography, fine art career and riding has been a time-consuming obstacle. “In North Carolina, my photography studio is a 20-minute car ride from home, and a three-minute trip to the barn. It makes for a much more palatable schedule than the one I was leading while working in New York City, and I feel more energized and inspired.”
What does the future hold for Monica? “For my artwork, my philosophy is to never stop creating, keep growing, keep exploring, keep changing,” she said. “I’m working on a portrait series now that I started early last summer and have plans to expand. Part I was exhibited at the Tryon International Equestrian Center this past fall, and the reception to the photographs was heart-warming and enthusiastic. The work is called ‘Esprit de Corps,’ and the images are a broad cross section of humans and animals, many of whom are the unsung heroes, who support the horse industry. It’s a way for me to record their beauty and give some thanks.”
Monica is sponsored by Epson America, and with their support printed the black-and-white photographs larger than life at 4 feet by 5 feet. “Shot on a super hi-resolution back, the detail in the images is mind-boggling,” she said. “Continuing this series is one of my current projects, but I’m constantly conceiving and shooting, and my notebook is filled with ideas for collaborative projects with horses as the main subject. As for riding, I hope to be on my horse until the day I leave this mortal coil. Executing a successful grand prix test on Zoe would be sublime! To be continually curious and never stop developing the ‘feel’; to sustain and build upon the delight in my work and routine … isn’t that, as riders and as creators, the dream?”
For more information, visit monicastevensonphotography.com.
Art Of The Horse is the world’s first equine art platform, established in 2014 by Shya Beth. With weekly articles featuring up-and-coming as well as world-renowned artists, exhibitions and art news, Art Of The Horse is the premier source for all things equine art. Visit artofthehorse.net.