When it comes to her career, Monica Stevenson leads an artistic double life. The award-winning photographer divides her time between commercial work with clients based in New York City and the horse photography she does in Tryon, North Carolina, where she and her husband have lived since 2015. “Every day, my life revolves around making beautiful things,” Stevenson says. “I like so much that my work is both technical and artistic. Those two sides of it satisfy the two sides of me.”
Stevenson perches on a stool in her small home studio with Maggie, one of her two wirehaired dachshunds, curled up in her lap (the other one, Ziggy, is in my lap). Surrounded by the tools of her trade, the photographer claims she comes by her métier naturally. While she describes her mother as a “Depression-era Martha Stewart with an artist’s soul,” it was her father, the family photographer, who piqued her interest in taking pictures.
“He turned our big bathroom into a darkroom,” Stevenson recalls. “As a kid, I would spend Saturday and Sunday afternoons in there with him while he developed pictures. I sat and watched that amazing magic you experience when you put a blank piece of white paper into the clear liquid and a photograph miraculously appears. I didn’t realize until many years later what an important experience that was for me.”
The Big Picture
Stevenson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, but her family lived all over the world (Australia, Puerto Rico, Spain) when she was growing up. For college, she landed back in the United States (her parents were living in Atlanta at that point) at UNC-Chapel Hill as a math major. That was where she caught the photography bug, in a class called Physics 45 that focused on why photography works. “It was that course,” she says, “that linked my affinity for science with my budding affinity for art.”
At home in Atlanta the summer after her freshman year, she enrolled in a fashion photography class at the Art Institute of Atlanta, and that sharpened her focus even further. “Up until that point, I had been mostly shooting documentary-type photography,” notes Stevenson. “I was a photographer for Yackety Yack, the UNC-Chapel Hill yearbook, and I was assigned to shoot football, basketball (Michael Jordan and James Worthy), dance concerts, festivals, and general campus and town scenes. I absolutely loved having special access to events and being able to watch people. And I loved sifting through the little yellow box filled with two columns of Kodachrome slides. The Yack was well funded, and several camera brands sent us new models to try. I remember using the Bronica ETR, which was the first 2-1/4 camera I had ever put to my eye. It was big and heavy, and it made a spectacular thunk when the mirror cocked—it was thrilling!”
The fashion photography class unlocked a creative door for her. “I realized how much I liked making pictures and not just taking pictures,” says the photographer, whose work has been exhibited across the globe. “I was enthralled by constructing the entire look of the photograph, from backgrounds to lighting to clothes and faces and make-up. This element of control allowed me to combine my theatrical affinities for fabric, textures, surfaces, and light. It was in this class that the idea took hold that I could actually do photography as a career.”
When her parents moved to Ohio, she ended up transferring to the University of Ohio, where she enrolled in the school’s renowned photography program. By then, Stevenson had realized that math was not something she wanted to pursue. Photography, as it turns out, more closely suited her artistic temperament.
While still in college in Ohio, the nascent commercial photographer moved to New York City to work as an assistant with a well-respected fashion photographer named Albert Watson. Better yet, she managed to convince her professors to give her credit for doing it. After six months, Stevenson returned to Ohio to graduate, and then went back to New York to work with Watson for another six months. From there, she freelanced for a while before snagging a full-time job with commercial photographer Chris Callis, with whom she worked for four years. “Chris was more conceptual, more illustrative,” Stevenson explains. “From Albert I learned rules and from Chris I learned how to break the rules. Both men were extremely helpful and formative to my own aesthetic.”
With that experience under her belt, Stevenson started her own business in 1987. She took some business classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology and rented a studio with four other photographers. “In those days, there was a lot of work,” she recalls. “I trudged up and down Madison Avenue with my portfolio to as many as five or six appointments a day.” And the assignments started rolling in.
Stevenson gazes into the distance as she reflects on how her work has evolved. “I’m way more skilled as a technician now. I had a series of photo agents, and they all felt that if I honed my photography to be more advertising-oriented, I’d get more work. So I made my work less illustrative and more technically adept.”
A Different Tack
One summer in the 1990s, while she was living in Manhattan, Monica rented a bedroom in a house in East Hampton. The owner kept horses on her property, and the photographer, who grew up as a horse-crazy kid happy to muck stalls in exchange for riding lessons, suddenly realized how much she missed riding. So she leased a horse for the summer, and stabled it on Long Island. With that, horses became an important part of her life again.
“That’s when I decided I wanted to be a vet,” she remembers, laughing. Since she was in her thirties at the time, her father (who always envisioned his daughter as a company executive in a suit and pumps) talked her out of going back to veterinary school. “If you love horses so much, why don’t you just photograph them?” he asked. That’s when the flash went off.
So she purchased a plastic camera called a Diana—very popular at the time—with which to photograph her horse on weekends when she went out to the barn. That camera gave her a respite from the technical rigor her 9-to-5 job demanded. “The plastic camera was so low-tech that it let my heart come through faster,” asserts Stevenson. “And the pictures came out romantic and blurry in places, because the lens was so rudimentary.” Eventually, the Diana proved unreliable, and Monica bought an old Rolleiflex camera (the kind that Richard Avedon used in the 1940s and ’50s). She now owns three of them.
Behind the Lens
Her horse work blossomed, becoming a yin to her commercial work’s yang. In the latter, the cultivated technique and precision gained from her years of technical experience are immediately apparent in Stevenson’s mastery of lighting and her ability to bring out shapes and the subtlety of things. “I shoot a lot of liquids and reflective things in my commercial work,” she states. “In those pictures, I want to grip someone and make them feel the slipperiness and wetness of the water.”
Most of her horse work, however, is not about technique at all. It’s about emotion. “I’m more beguiled in my commercial work by the appearance of the surface, while with the horse work, it’s what’s under the surface,” Stevenson points out. “My horse pictures stand out because they come from my heart. It’s pure self-expression, and I’m not doing it for anybody else but myself.”
The ink and the paper on which the images are printed contribute to the overall effect. “I like people to feel how two-dimensional art captures 3-D things,” alleges the artist. “My choice of ink and paper makes the blacks very velvety, so there’s a feeling of texture and depth and softness. I want people to be able to appreciate that aspect of the subject matter, too—the sensuality of fur, or breath, or leather.”
Until recently, Stevenson has been shooting horses with film in black and white. Film, she feels, is organic and it’s much more difficult to make a mistake with digital photography than with film. But it’s those mistakes that give her horse photography a warm life. “Lately, even though I’m shooting digitally,” she confesses, “I will often set things incorrectly on my camera (a Sony a7R II) so I can allow the pathway for a mistake to happen.”
Stevenson has also begun portraying horses in color. She has a seasonal series of her Dutch Warmblood, Zoe, where she body-painted the horse and matched it to the scenery of the season (green in spring; blue in summer; yellow in fall, gray in winter). “Zoe loves human attention, so she doesn’t mind being painted,” Stevenson explains. “She just thinks she’s getting a bath.”
From any angle, it’s challenging going back and forth between two types of work and two cities, yet Stevenson pulls it off through her fearless approach. “When you run your own business, you can’t be afraid of making cold calls, or having a calendar that’s empty for a month,” she acknowledges. “As a commercial photographer with an artistic style, you can’t be afraid to try a new technique and have it fail.”
When the photographer and her husband moved to Tryon, friends asked if she was afraid her career would die when she moved from New York City to this tiny town in North Carolina. “The idea of my career not working never entered my head,” declares Stevenson, “because I’ve lived my whole life figuring out ways to make things work. Being able to shape your own destiny is very powerful.”
Be it in her commercial or horse work, Stevenson feels she has an artistic responsibility with her image-making to demonstrate the inherent beauty in the objects before her camera. “I think this stems from my insistent optimism—that everything has a beautiful aspect if you look at it correctly.”
What would she do without the artistic freedom of her horse work? “I would just ride,” she muses. “But it’s very difficult for me to do anything without thinking about taking pictures of it.”
To view more of Stevenson’s work, visit monicastevenson.com.