Robert Vavra is one of the most famous horse photographers in the world, but he doesn't see himself that way.
"I view myself more as an artist and storyteller," says Vavra, 76, who runs two miles a day and has the voice of a man decades younger.
The artistry has made his work an international success, with decades of endurance. Romantic, mythical and boldly evocative, Vavra's photographic compositions of horses seem like something from a magical storybook come to life.
"My aim is to capture the true romance and beauty of the horse," says Vavra, something he has done as an author and photographer of nearly 40 books whose subjects span continents and six decades.
On Saturday, the International Museum of the Horse at the Kentucky Horse Park will open Vavra's Vision: The Equine Images of Robert Vavra, the first major retrospective of Vavra's 60-year career as an equine photographer. It continues through May 30.
"I was born loving horses," says Vavra, who lives in Seville, Spain, and El Cajon, Calif., "how they smell, how they look, everything about them."
Throughout his sprawling career, Vavra has amassed a body of work that has vaulted him to the role of one of the world's most sought-after horse experts, being as much an all-around ambassador for the horse as a critically esteemed artist, roles that come natural to Vavra.
When the Russian Republic wanted to issue 34 horse-themed postage stamps, they called on Vavra.
When the films Lawrence of Arabia, Patton and The Horse Whisperer needed an expert who could capture and understand the nuanced beauty of the horse, they called Vavra.
Jane Goodall and William Shatner introduce Vavra's documentary film, Such Is the True Nature of Horses, the culmination of 20 years of research on primitive equine behavior and Vavra's time spent living with wild horses in France.
The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Times of London and Newsweek are but a few of the major publications to review and critically praise Vavra's work.
Life's an adventure
Vavra's life, like his work, also has an adventurous storybook quality. He spent six years living among the tribal Massai people of Africa, who had never seen a horse, one of which Vavra always kept by his side.
"To go out galloping with a giraffe or zebra and not knowing if a lion was going to pull you down was a thrilling feeling," Vavra says of his Africa adventure, which led to a book in 1991, A Tent With a View.
Echoing the adventuresome spirit that is inherent in all of Vavra's work, the Chicago Tribune said Vavra "might well have been a character Ernest Hemingway invented for one of his books set in Spain."
A sense of the epic is something Vavra is not afraid to embrace in his work, including such bold theatricality that led an Amazon.com reviewer of his book Unicorns I Have Known to comment, "You start dreaming from the first page of the book till the very last one, and when you are at the end of your reading, believe me, you will start to believe that the unicorn really does exist."
Part of Vavra's process as an artist is to embrace the kind of theatricality that makes people believe in unicorns. His photo shoots are about meticulous attention to atmosphere and detail.
"It is not about going out and setting a horse free and photographing it," Vavra says. "I plan it out very thoroughly. I manipulate all my settings. In that sense of the word, I am not a photographer but an artist."
A long association
For the Lexington show, Vavra picked the exhibit's selections, choosing the best images from the dozens of books he has published over the years, a hands-on approach that is typical of his work ethic. When publishing a book, he insists on visiting the printer to ensure perfection at every stage.
The International Museum of the Horse has enjoyed a fruitful personal relationship with Vavra for decades.
"The museum's first involvement with Robert Vavra was in 1977, as we were frantically trying to finalize the initial exhibits and get the museum ready to open the next year," says museum director Bill Cooke.
"Robert had released his book Equus: The Creation of a Horse, and once we saw it we know that these special images were what we needed for the entrance of the museum. His images were a revelation. Here was a world-class photographer who was actually trying to capture the essence of the horse"
Sixteen of Vavra's images have greeted Kentucky Horse Park visitors for 33 years.
More than two decades later, Vavra contacted the museum about setting up a large exhibit of his work.
"Prior to 2000, when the museum galleries were expanded to accommodate our Imperial China exhibition, we simply had not had the space to host anything as large as Robert was proposing," Cooke says.
"In 2001, we opened what was to be the most successful photographic show in our history. It was, therefore, a no-brainer when Robert called again in 2009 and proposed that we host the first major retrospective of his work with horses."
Cooke effectively summarizes Vavra's critical and commercial appeal when he says, "Robert has the wonderful gift of being able to capture the true essence of the horse. He is a true adventurer, and you feel that when viewing his work."