International Fashion Photographer Donna DeMari Brings Visual Allure to the Pages of RIDING BARRANCA, the New Book by Laura Chester

Fashion photographer Donna DeMari on her Dutch Warmblood Zwen.

Fashion photographer Donna DeMari on her Dutch Warmblood Zwen.

Donna DeMari is an American-born, self-taught fashion photographer who began her career in Milan, Italy, and whose innate feel for natural light and shape steadily amassed an astounding list of top clients, including Anthropologie, Australian Vogue, British Elle, British Vogue, British Brides, French Cosmopolitan, French Marie Claire, Grazia, Italian Vogue, Italian Glamour, Italian Marie Claire, Laura Ashley London, L’Officiel, Macy’s, Margaret Howell, Natori, Neiman Marcus, The New York Times, O’Halloran, Pepe Jeans, Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition, Sky Magazine, Spanish Elle, Spiegal, The Observer, Target, Ralph Lauren, WWD, and many more.

In 1995 and 1996, Donna became the first woman to shoot the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition and was featured in the ABC television special “The Making of the Swimsuit Edition,” as well as in a special segment on VH1 Fashion Television, which explored her views as a female fashion photographer. She has traveled the globe while photographing top models such as Kate Moss, Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Helena Christenson.

In addition to fashion, Donna has been photographing horses for more than two decades, the result of a love affair with horses that began at the age of four. Her horse photographs were recently discovered by Ralph Lauren and are currently being displayed in RL stores around the world. Donna has also shown her work in numerous exhibitions and has had her photos published in five books, including the newest book by her close friend and (sometimes) riding partner Laura Chester: RIDING BARRANCA (CLICK HERE to download a free excerpt).

We recently had a chance to talk to Donna about her career, her love of horses, and her work with Laura Chester over the years.

TSB: Although you have spent much of your life as a fashion photographer, you have also been photographing horses for more than two decades. Are there similarities and differences in photographing human and equine subjects? Can you tell us a little about how you approach a model in couture, versus a horse at liberty in a field (for example)? What are you trying to capture in both?

Donna: I once wrote an artist statement that best answers this exact question. I wrote the following: It is a fleeting instant where reality fades and the abstract dream intercedes. A split second, which for me exposes any separation between subject and photographer. I am no longer aware of anything but the power and presence before me, losing myself in an intimate dance of passion and discovery, where the essence of the soul be it woman or horse, is momentarily released to my watching eye.

It is a dance that often begins slowly with hesitation and longing, a hunger to expose the beautiful and mystical through quiet observation and gentle encouraging. Unsure of each other, I move slowly, circling, watching, photographing. A presence that is physically non-intrusive but emotionally connected in an effort to expose the most private of moments or movements. What results can be both explosive and subtle, a photograph which, I hope, takes a step from this world into another, like a touch of magic.

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TSB: You have had a number of books published featuring your photographs. How does RIDING BARRANCA, the newest work by your friend Laura Chester, set itself apart from the other books in which you have been involved? Can you share with us a little of how you came to be part of this project?

Donna: Laura is one of my most dearest friends and we also share a very similar aesthetic. Working together in the past has always been a joyful process and a collaborative effort. Laura sought me out for our fIrst book together Holy Personal not long after we fIrst met. Sparks followed next, which combined a collection of Laura’s edgy and engaging short stories with a variety of photos I had taken while living in Europe. Amongst those were many of my horse photos never before seen.

Being best friends and working so well together, it was a natural progression as two horsewomen to collaborate together on books that celebrated our great love of horses. Thus came Eros & Equus and Heartbeat for Horses, which were both a labor of love. Laura’s editing choices and my photos were a perfect fit, and it seemed unlikely that we could top those. Then came RIDING BARRANCA, which initially was meant to be all prose and a very personal and unique interweaving of both Laura’s amazing adventures on horseback with the powerful honesty of her personal family relationships and the parallels between them. Laura’s husband Mason, a very talented photographer himself, began documenting Laura’s rides in Arizona, as well as on her many trips, with beautiful images that perfectly complemented the prose. Mason generously let me share the spotlight and I filled in with the images taken in Massachusetts and India—as well as the cover image, my most favorite photo of Laura ever!

TSB: “Place” and setting play an important part in RIDING BARRANCA. Your work in the fashion world has led you on fashion shoots all over the globe, including locations such as Thailand, Japan, Australia, Bali, and Hong Kong. What is it about the air, the energy, the light of a different “place” that you try to capture in photographs, and which Laura captures in words? What can be found when we travel to places unknown? What can be lost?

Donna: It can be summed up easily with one word—adventure. Traveling for me has always been one of my heart’s greatest pleasures and thus an easy fit. Laura and I have both been working at our crafts for decades, and yet we never have lost passion for the art we create. This passion becomes much more heightened when combined with the adrenalin rush of new and exciting visuals in far corners of the world. Especially India, which is extraordinary and overwhelming in it’s uniqueness.

TSB: You found that as you traveled and pursued your career in your early twenties that you had to, in some way, give up having horses in your life. What was it about the horse that drove you to integrate them into your existence in some little way (roaming the stables outside of Paris, for example)? What is it about the horse that draws you to him still now?

Donna on Zwen.

Donna on Zwen.

Donna: I have loved horses since the tender age of four when my Dad first took me for a pony ride.Very simply, I think when you have the horse bug, you have it for life. It took me forty years to finally have my own horse. Before that I rode when and if I could. And I spent wonderful days with my camera soaking up the smell of hay in stables in France and capturing images that are probably still my best.

But no moment in my life will ever compare to the first day I met my Zwen, and he became the realization of a dream I never thought to live. Zwen was 11 years old when I bought him, a magnificent Dutch Warmblood, 16.3 hands high and more horse than I had ever encountered in my life. But we were truly meant to be together, and he is all the horse I longed to have. I am blessed to have him still at age 30, although he has been retired for the last five years. He taught me everything there is to know and love about horses and riding. I love him dearly.

TSB: You have worked with Laura Chester on a number of book projects. What is it about her writing that you feel parallels the images you capture with your camera? What is it about the work you have done together that you think affects people most?

Donna: I would choose to answer this question with just a few of the many adjectives that describe Laura’s remarkable writing. She is inspired, committed, honest, passionate, modern, detailed, intelligent, funny, highly creative, a painter with words, emotional, dark and bright at the same time, curious, intimate and personal. A woman with a style all her own. One of a kind. Extraordinary. In short, an amazing storyteller. Hard not to be drawn into her work and harder still not to turn the next page.

TSB: Do you have any memories of a particular image of a horse, a drawing, painting, or photograph, that isn’t your own and that you feel captured the essence of the horse in a still frame?

Donna: I have many postcards of horses that I bought when I lived in Paris. All fabulous photographs that I collected at a time I never thought to one day have a horse of my own.

TSB: You are a dog person as well as a horse person, and recently were involved in an online project for Anthropologie, which featured your Labradors. Can you tell us a little about your dogs and why you enjoyed having them in your life? Did they make good photography subjects?

Donna: They were brothers, one black, one chocolate, and they were the loves of my life. I photographed their entire lives and wrote furiously about our life together and all the particulars of their unique and gorgeous personalities so as not to forget any detail of the love we shared after their passing—my grief all encompassing.

It was my dream to honor them in a book, and I have. It is titled Luke and Forrest: My saviors, My Salvation, just published in November by Willowcreek Press. It is my greatest accomplishment, and yes, they were beautiful…all the answers to your questions are in the pages of my book. They were everything to me. They were pure love.

TSB: If you could choose one photograph you’ve taken over the years to catch a glimpse of, or take a prolonged look at, every day, which photo would it be? Can you describe an image you might think of as a “favorite,” regardless of the subject?

Donna: I have three. One is of Luke and Forrest, a black and white image I took of them, head to head, that appears on the hardcover edition of their book. The second is a photograph a friend took of me riding my Zwen in a flowing dress, similar to the image used on the cover of Eros & Equus. The third and most dear is a photo of my mom and me at the beach many years ago.

To learn more about Donna and her work, check out this interview for Equestrian Life’s program “For the Love of Horse,” which aired on HRTV:

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CLICK IMAGE TO ORDER

CLICK IMAGE TO ORDER

RIDING BARRANCA, the new book by Laura Chester featuring photos by Donna DeMari and Mason Rose, is available now from the TSB online bookstore.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER NOW

“The counterpoint of horses and family makes Riding Barranca unusually satisfying. This intrigue, the unanswered questions, the mysterious juxtapositions, are what makes this book, to me, a work of art.” –Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul; Soul Mates; and A Religion of One’s Own

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