Equine photographer Doug Prather captures elusive magical moments with horses
Internationally renowned as one of the world's premier photographers of equine pastoral and sporting-related images, Doug Prather keeps his camera on the ready at all times while driving his favorite, well-worn routes through Kentucky's celebrated Bluegrass region. He never knows when his next great shot might come.
"There are so many variables that go into it. To capture these images is so fleeting," explains Prather, of Nicholasville. "The horses have got to be there. The time of day. The weather. The lighting. It all has to be there." His 30-year career as an equine photographer has taught him not only to spot a great shot--but not to miss it when it's there.
An artist's eye
On a rare, densely foggy morning this spring near Lexington, Prather hopped out of bed like a kid on Christmas morning, says his wife of 23 years, Gail, who collaborates with Doug as his director of sales and marketing and co-owner of their publishing company, Red Sky Publishing.
"He doesn't usually move that fast in the mornings, but he was running around saying, 'Spectacular morning! Spectacular morning!'" she recalls. "He called me later and said, 'I've got it. I've got it. A beautiful shot.'"
The photo Prather snapped that day--later titled "Keeneland Morning Workout"--of horses surrounded by the cloudy mist was one of the best images he's captured, he says, since his celebrated "Kentucky Morning Turnout." Taken in 1985, that image shows the stallion Stop the Music at Lexington's Greentree Stud, framed by the dark shadows of the farm's massive maple trees. It was the photo that really launched Prather's career, one that started him on his way to becoming a household name.
Since then, Prather's developed a signature style that blends his knowledge and love of horses with an impeccable artistic eye. His images--of young foals at play in fields of spring flowers, a mother and her baby grazing near a silver pond, jockeys and their horses moving as one down to the wire--are simultaneously breathtaking and technically stunning.
"I always try to merge fine art composition into my camera," says Prather, who graduated in 1972 from Georgetown College with a degree in fine art. His major in college was not photography, but painting and illustration. It wasn't until later, while working as the art director for a Lexington-based Thoroughbred horse advertising agency, that he began taking photos. His first published image--a close-up headshot of a mare and her foal, which was radical for trade publications at the time--graced the back cover of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record in February 1973. The image garnered a positive response, and Prather launched his own photography and graphic art business three years later in 1976.
He traces his career's inspiration to lazy hours spent daydreaming in study hall at Georgetown High School, where the windows overlooked vistas at Frank Bradshaw's world-renowned Saddlebred farm. The beauty of it all crept into his subconscious, he says.
"Some of my most cherished compliments come, inadvertently, from people who see my work for the first time and insist that my photographs are paintings," Prather says. While other photographers may combine the best elements of multiple images and manipulate placements of horses to create desired shots in their digital darkrooms, Prather strives for photographic purity.
"I try to be as true to the photograph as possible. I try to keep it as natural as possible," he says.
That makes getting those winning shots, like his personal favorite, "The Autumn Paddock" (whose subject, the sire El Prado, came out of nowhere in his field at Lexington's Airdrie Stud to strike a pose precisely the way Prather needed, at exactly the right spot), all that much more a gift--one Prather doesn't take for granted.
"You just have to train yourself to look," he says, "to be ready and not lose that special moment."
In addition to his stunning collection of images from Kentucky's famed Thoroughbred horse farms, Prather also often photographs Louisville's urban cityscape--his "Louisville Sunset" is a favorite there--and he has collections from shoots in Ocala, Florida, the Western United States, and New Zealand. He is a fixture at premier equine sporting events like the Kentucky Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, and the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. His images appear often in both mainstream and horse-industry publications like Time, Newsweek, Southern Farm & Ranch, Delta SKY, Southern Living, The Horse, and The
His fine-art, limited-edition prints are in high demand with collectors around the world, and his collections of greeting cards and calendars are annual favorites.
Prather's first book, PRIVATE ACCESS: Behind the Gates of America's Premiere Horse Farms and Ranches, published in 2006, won the American Horse Publications Best Pictorial Book of the Year Award for its stunning images of Gainesway Farm, Calumet, Hill 'N' Dale, and 13 other elite farms in Kentucky, Florida, Virginia, Texas, and California.
Because Prather has a reputation for capturing the beauty and majesty of the farms he shoots, the doors of the world's premier farms have literally been opened to him. He's not once been turned away from any farm he's asked to photograph.
Prather and his wife are already at work on images for PRIVATE ACCESS II. (See below for how you can nominate a Kentucky horse farm or ranch for possible inclusion.)
Recently, Prather added another feather to his cap when he was named Official Photographer to the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games to be held at the Kentucky Horse Park, September 25 through October 10, 2010.
The role will see him in charge of capturing images from the Games' eight signature events--show jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting, reining, and para-equestrian. While he usually photographs alone or sometimes with the help of his daughter, Lauren, a UK junior considering a career in photojournalism, the Games will require Prather to hire additional help.
"We wanted a photographer who could help us capture and present the beauty of Kentucky to the world," says Jack Kelly, CEO of the 2010 Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games. "We knew Doug's experience, his reputation, and his eye for Kentucky would help us meet that objective."
Prather's responsibilities as World Games photographer have solidified his role as an ambassador for the state. Large-scale exhibits of some of Prather's most beautiful Kentucky shots grace both the Louisville and Lexington airports, so that his view of Kentucky is literally the first that many visitors to the Games will see.
In preparation for the Games, Prather has been busy crisscrossing the world--he photographed equine events at the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, Germany, and at last year's Pan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Mastering the many different photographic nuances required to capture the best shots from the various events has been an enjoyable challenge, he says. For example, the goal in photographing reining is to get a shot of the horse with a nicely bowed neck, one hoof out straight with the other bent (both off the ground, as he's coming into a slide), while in photographing jumping, you try to capture the horse with both feet tucked tightly against the chest with ears alert as he crosses an obstacle, Prather explains.
Living his dream
Back at home when heďż˝s scouting out sites for scenic shots, Prather doesn't keep a notepad in his car to jot down photo ideas. He doesn't need to. When he sees a great vista, he remembers it--always.
"I have a photographic memory," he admits. "You can drive me to a place one time, and I can go back to it five years later."
Some days, he drives his favorite routes, Bluegrass roads and byways he knows like the back of his hand, and doesn't snap a single frame. He knows intrinsically when the shots are there, and when they're not.
There have been shots he's wished for, shots that have come and gone without ever coming to be--times when he'd see a particular vantage point near a bridge with a perfect framing of foliage, but no horse there to complete it. Then, as the years passed, the bushes and foliage grew too big and the picture was lost before he'd ever gotten a chance to take it.
That's why, when he wakes up to a morning graced with fog or snow, or to a spring day when the lighting is just perfect, it still inspires him.
"Every day brings another chance to pursue those elusive magical moments, when all of the elements come together, and the horse is in harmony with nature," he says.
When a photographer friend from Canada visited recently, Prather took her for a tour of one of his favored routes. "She said, 'Doug, every place you turn here are the most beautiful farms and roads and vistas I have ever seen. This place is a photographer's dreamland,'" Prather recalls. "And I said, 'I know it is.' There's nothing that compares to it."
Date of Birth: April 29, 1949, in Georgetown
Current Home: Nicholasville
Family: Married since 1985 to Gail Nickell Prather, originally from West Liberty. They have two daughters, Lauren, 20, and Elyse, 16.
Education: Georgetown High School, 1967; B.A. Fine Arts Degree, Georgetown College, 1972
Honors and Awards: Official Photographer of the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games Kentucky 2010; recipient of the 2006 Pictorial Book of the Year Award from American Horse Publications for his book, PRIVATE ACCESS: Behind the Gates of America's Premiere Horse Farms and Ranches.
Hobbies: fly-fishing, golf, and tennis
Professional Memberships: AIPS (International Sports Press Association); NSSA (National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association); IAEJ (International Association of Equestrian Journalists); Kentucky Thoroughbred Farm Managers Association; TOBA (Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association); USEF (United States Equestrian Federation)
Upcoming Photography Venues: 2008 Olympics, Beijing, China; Para-equestrian National Championships, Wayne, Illinois; National Vaulting Championships, Fresno, California
FINDING PRATHER'S IMAGES
Doug Prather's fine art images, greeting cards, book, calendars, and other products are available for purchase on his Web site at www.dougprather.com. The Web site includes galleries of his most popular and latest images. His items are also available at galleries and gift stores throughout Kentucky. E-mail email@example.com
for a gallery closest to you.
KEYWORD EXCLUSIVE: WANT TO BE IN PRIVATE ACCESS II?
Doug and Gail Prather are looking for nominations of horse farms and ranches across Kentucky for their next book. To learn how to nominate a farm and more on the specifics of what they are seeking, go to: horse farms