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Portraits of a different kind: HORSE by Grace Costa

Juliette Dudley

Grace Costa has brought together two of her greatest loves in life, photography and horses, to create a portrait exhibition of a different kind.

Since graduating from Canberra Institute of Technology 16 years ago, Grace has worked hard to build a career as an award-winning professional photographer. As Senior Photographer for the Department of Defence for the last 10 years, she’s covered high profile events and people along with military training activities. Like many creative professionals, Grace lives somewhat of a double life, balancing her “day job” between personal passion projects.

I chatted with Grace to find out more about how her love of horses has influenced her work, and why she decided to create an exhibition dedicated to them.

JULIETTE: Can you tell me a bit about your background with horses?  

Grace: Horses have always been a love of mine, thanks to my father being a horseman all his life. He taught me all I know about them – we always owned horses and still do today. My sisters and I grew up riding and my family owned a horse riding school in Canberra for many years. Admittedly I was very scared of them as a little girl, but slowly grew to understand them, particularly their body language and behaviours. This has enabled me to photograph them in only the special way that I can.

When I shared the idea with him about photographing a horse inside the Yale Columbia Dome and asked him to help test the idea with his horses, he thought I was mad! He always says to me “There’s no doubt about you Gracie”.

Pepe by Grace Costa

Pepe by Grace Costa

I invited my father to be involved with the exhibition by hosting a one-time event ‘In Conversation with Horseman Angelo Costa’. He spoke about training horses using body language to communicate with them and observation, in understanding their natural behaviour and how this can impact on the training experience between horse and human. People are always blown away by my father’s knowledge of horses. He actually started educating horses when he was a teenager, with his best friend in Narrabundah about 50 years ago. 

How did you decide to commit to a full exhibition on the horse?

When I began photographing conceptual portraits with horses, I thought I would like to exhibit the series one day. At the end of 2015 Nishi Gallery approached me to exhibit with them, so it fuelled me to finish the work that I’d started. That gave me less than 12 months to shoot an entire series. I felt this collection of work needed to be appreciated as large scale fine art prints in an exhibition like this, because as far as I’ve seen no one has photographed horses in this way, (inside a telescope).

HORSE Exhibition at Nishi Gallery, 2016

HORSE Exhibition at Nishi Gallery, 2016

So many people have a love of horses and Canberra currently has the highest number of horses per capita of any city in Australia, so it felt like the perfect time and place for an exhibition like this. I’ve always been a portrait photographer and using horses as my subjects is a new direction for me that I’m very keen to continue exploring. I’m already working on my second series.

It must be difficult to photograph animals; did you encounter any challenges?

Yes, there were plenty of challenges, although the horses were very relaxed inside the studio space. There were some very funny moments though: toilet mishaps, sleeping horses, and very silly assistants trying to get the horses’ attention made for fun sessions.

Gemma by Grace Costa

Gemma by Grace Costa

Horses can be predictable if you understand them and the way they move. I know what I’m looking for when photographing horses – the ears have to be pricked forward, the legs have to be positioned in a strong stance and the look has to show their character, all in the fraction of a second.

It tested my patience, that’s for sure, because I’m a photographer that tries to get the shot right ‘in camera’ rather than spend hours in Photoshop later. I started my career photographing babies and children so I learned the boundaries early on with this type of portrait work. I didn’t push the horse to pose for too long, and I was very, very patient and kind, to achieve the result I was after.

How do you find the photography industry in Canberra?

The photography industry in Canberra is a great community. I’ve been a photographer for 16 years so I’ve become more heavily involved over time, with exhibiting, mentoring, lecturing, judging photo awards and working commercially. There are so many groups and facilities such as CIT, PhotoAccess, Canberra Photographic Society and AIPP that are sharing the love of photography with their members and helping them learn the art form.

Canberra has a variety of photographers, from commercial photographers to fine art photographers – I’m part of both these worlds so it’s wonderful for me to collaborate with these groups.

How did this project compare to your work as the Department of Defence’s official photographer?

It’s like comparing apples with fish! My Defence work is based around military activities, special events and corporate imagery. My work at Defence is always short tasks that don’t require the kind of long-term development that a body of work like HORSE does.

My personal conceptual work always comes from my heart, an idea that transforms into a story that I want to tell. That’s the difference between the work you get paid to do and the stuff that comes from your own passion for creating, just for the love of telling your stories and making art. I’m very fortunate I have the time and energy to do both.

Do you have a favourite photograph from the HORSE series?

My favourite photograph is Jock. He is the huge bay Shire. I’d never seen this breed of horse before and when I came face to face with him for the first time, I was filled with excitement like a little kid on a jumping castle.

Jock by Grace Costa

Jock by Grace Costa

I knew Jock would make a great portrait, he stood so tall and wide, like a big friendly giant. The portrait of him with his forelock swept to one side made him look like a true model as he makes direct eye contact with the camera. He was so placid and kind-natured I wanted to take him home with me.

What’s next for HORSE?

Since the launch of the exhibition in Canberra last year, HORSE is now travelling to other galleries in Australia and featured in a couple of Australian magazines. I have been accepted to be part of the internationally recognised Head On Photo Festival in Sydney this coming May, so Horse will be on show there for two weeks.

Head On Photo Festival is Australia’s most prestigious photography events and one of the world’s leading photography festivals. From there I’ve been invited to present a TEDxCanberra talk about my project in September this year, which I’m very excited about, and I’ve already commenced work on my follow up horse series.

Gemma by Grace Costa

Gemma by Grace Costa

HORSE has been my most successful show to date with a sell out of all the first edition prints at the Nishi Gallery. I think honestly it is due to hard work but more than that, the personal connection behind the work. I have come to discover the subject matter I’m truly passionate about working with and it comes through in the work itself, and the challenges that come with photographing horses, well I’m willing to put up with that.

the essentials

What: HORSE by Grace Costa
Where: Head On Photo Festival, Scratch Art Space, Marrickville, Sydney
When: 18-28 May. Opening night 17 May from 6-8pm
Web: gracecosta.comheadon.com.au

Juliette Dudley

Juliette Dudley is a graphic designer and illustrator. In her spare time she likes gardening, watching anime, playing video games and eating samgyeopsal with soju. She also blogs about design and designers in Canberra at gooddesignclub.com More about the Author

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