A lens on life, a glimpse of greatness

Equine photographer harnesses the subtle beauty of nature

November 18, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to the Sun

After the birth of a foal at her horse farm in Fallston, Ellen Pons waited, poised for the right moment to capture the newborn and his mother.

The foal nuzzled on the mare, trying to figure out how to get milk.

The mare lowered her nose and touched it to the foal's nose, and Pons snapped a photograph.

"Taking photographs of an animal is like trying to catch a dancer who is moving in the perfect position," Pons said. "Knowing the horse's body language helps me to expect the unexpected."

The image is one of about 70 equine photographs featured in Pons' inaugural exhibit, which runs through Dec. 9 at the Gallery at Liriodendron in Bel Air. In addition to the photos that depict life on the farm, the exhibit includes paintings by Pons and bronze equine statues by sculptor Peggy Kauffman.

Pons said she bases her work on the movement and body language of the horses at Country Life Farm. Often, she perches atop a fence or gets down on the ground. Yet Pons said she often captures an arresting image by accident.

One photograph in the exhibit, called "Glee," was taken after some of the horses were released from the barn. One horse kicked up its heels.

"That photo could not have been planned," Pons said. "There's no way to know when a horse is going to do something like that. You just have to stand back and wait for something to happen."

Pons developed an interest in horses when she was growing up in Richmond, Va. Her family had a Welsh pony named Bonnie that she began riding at age 4.

"Bonnie was mean if we weren't riding him," she said. "And it was intimidating to go catch him."

She learned the nuances of body language in animals, she said, an awareness that would come in handy later when she began photographing horses.

She married Josh Pons, whose family owned Country Life Farm, which is the oldest thoroughbred nursery in Maryland, she said. Life on the farm required some adjustment, but the countryside provided an ideal backdrop for an artist.

"We have a huge hill behind the house, and at sunset it's perfect for taking silhouettes," she said.

It was then that Pons' interest in photography, which began when she was a child, was rekindled.

She first pursued the activity at age 12, when she used her father's Yashica Mat 35 mm camera to take pictures of thoroughbreds. She had a darkroom in a closet in the basement of the family home.

A great-aunt who was a sculptor, painter, and poet instilled in Pons an appreciation of art and the outdoors. Pons pursued her interest in art at Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1982 in communications, art and design.

After moving to the 113-acre Fallston farm, she began illustrating in addition to her photography.

A few years ago Pons received a fax of a photo from someone at Sports Illustrated who was trying to identify the photographer, she said.

The magazine wanted to use the photo with a story about Cigar, a prize-winning thoroughbred racehorse that was bred at Country Life Farm. When Cigar was retired in 1996, he was North America's leading money winner, with nearly $10 million.

It turns out that the photo was taken by Pons, who said she vividly recalled the picture and the horse. Cigar had kicked her in the stomach when she was six months pregnant with her son, she said.

"He didn't kick me hard; he just left dirt on my shirt -- but he kicked me," she said. "My son has a large dimple on his cheek, and we love to say that Cigar put it there."

The magazine ran the photo and included some information about the Ponses in the accompanying article.

Pons' art took off in 1989, when her husband began writing a diary of life on their farm for Blood-Horse magazine, a trade publication. Pons did illustrations for the stories, which were published in a 1992 book.

In early December, the couple's second collaboration -- Merryland Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Racing Stable -- will be published. The illustrations show life on their other farm, in Baltimore County, that is used to train horses, she said.

Beth McCoy, art director for Blood-Horse magazine, was struck by the simple beauty of Pons' images. The photos showed horses doing ordinary things such as eating and getting immunizations, and also included silhouettes. About 10 of Pons' photos were published monthly with the stories for about 18 months.

"Ellen's work is very moody. ... She captures life on the farm perfectly," McCoy said.

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