Equestrian photographer Shelley Paulson captures beauty in the barn, the field and beyond.
By Allison Armstrong Rehnborg
Shelley Paulson spends her life chasing light. But once caught by Shelley’s lens, sunbeams become more than illumination for a gorgeous image. In her images, the golden light is an element of every photo—as much a character as the horse, woman or cowboy limned by its rays.
“How I use light is always part of the story,” Shelley said. “If I’m photographing someone riding fast and exciting, I might put them in strong light because it supports the story. But if someone’s having a tender moment with her horse, I want the light soft. When the light matches the story, you can feel the moment happening in the photo.”
A freelance photographer in Buffalo, Minnesota, Shelley specializes in photos of horses and equestrians. Whether she’s posing high school seniors and their horses in classic portrait sessions or documenting the daily activities of riders and their horses in lifestyle sessions, Shelley loves capturing the relationship between horses and people. It’s a special connection she understands personally as well as professionally. Shelley’s own horses, a chestnut mare named “Maggie Sue”and “Fritzie,” a bay mare sporting flashy chrome, regularly star in her commercial and stock photography.
“Horses have had a profound impact on my life, my heart and who I am,” Shelley said. “When I was first trying my hand at photography, I took photos of everything. I happened to take one photo of a girl and her horse. There was something so emotional about the image that showed their connection.”
Shelley started out as a full-time wedding photographer, traveling the world in pursuit of the golden, timeless photos she quickly became known for. But she also continued to take photos of horses, capturing images of horses and people posed forever in dreamy moments of time with sunlight wafting in the downy hairs of a windblown mane, sparkling in the eyes of a girl or slanting past the brim of a man’s cowboy hat. As a photographer, Shelley understands the significance of moments. She also knows that some moments that can alter a life forever.
“One day as I was coming out of the bathroom at a car rental facility in San Jose, California, I slipped on some water and fell head-first onto the concrete floor,” Shelley said. “My head hit the concrete so hard it split the skin.”
The fall left Shelley with a traumatic brain injury. As a result, she was crippled by fatigue, unbearable headaches and the nagging sense that she was always off-balance. The lowest point came when her neurologist pinpointed the reason for her balance issues.
“My doctor told me that my brain was perceiving my environment differently than reality, which was affecting my body’s equilibrium. And that’s why I felt like I was always falling forward.’ I had to shoot a big wedding the next day and I was so stressed,” Shelley remembered. “I called my husband crying and told him, ‘Whatever it takes, I can’t do this anymore.’”
Her lowest point became a catalyst for change, and with the encouragement of her husband, Tracy, Shelley stopped booking weddings and trained her focus on equines, instead.
“It was a huge leap of faith to let go of my primary income and hope the horses could fill the gap,” Shelley said. “But I thought about that first image I took of the girl and her horse. I set out to capture that connection because it resonated with me and I knew it would resonate with others, too.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Spring 2019 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.