Intuition and Luck

By Allison Teague

Photographer Lisa Cueman documents the wild horses living on the Outer Banks

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As anyone with a pet and camera knows, photographing animals is an exercise in patience. Just need that one perfect shot…

When the subjects are wild horses on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, that challenge is quadrupled. Just in getting near enough to get the shots, dealing with weather, tides, and the mood and trust of the herds, Dorset photographer Lisa Cueman has her work cut out for her.

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Photo by Lee Brand

But Cueman says she doesn’t see it just that way. For her, this photography is a labor of passion and love, and so she’ll wait to get that one shot in a thousand — and will keep returning to the Outer Banks again and again to photograph wild horses, whose lineage traces back 500 years to the time of the first Spanish explorers.

“Captive of the Wild: The Horses of the Outer Banks,” on display at Tilting At Windmills Gallery in Manchester since July 27, is the result of three visits Cueman undertook recently to the Rachel Carson Reserve in Beaufort, N.C., part of the North Carolina Coastal Reserve & National Estuarine Research Reserve, and the nearby Shackleford Banks of Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Horse2This site is a complex of islands: Carrot Island, Town Marsh, Bird Shoal, and Horse Island. These islands are more than three miles long and less than a mile wide. Middle Marsh, separated from the rest of the site by the North River Channel, is almost two miles long and less than a mile wide. The entire Rachel Carson component is 2,315 acres.

Cueman went here to see two distinct herds — and captured their essence. She produced an intimate look at the successful management of wild horses pretty much left to their own resources along North Carolina’s barrier islands.

Horse6She made three visits, ranging from 10 days to two weeks each. During these visits, she would spend much of the first week letting the herd get used to her. As the locations are mostly submerged, she would wade through the tidewater, her equipment slung safely in a bag, until she found the herd. Forbidden to approach closer than 50 feet, she put her monopod and Nikkor zoom lenses to good use, snapping away on her digital Nikon.

Protecting her gear was a constant concern. The water is salty, and there’s boat-only access. Cueman said fast-drying pants and water shoes were invaluable after she’d stood in waist-deep water for hours on end, waiting for just the right shot to appear.

Once she had the horses’ trust, and all the elements fell into place, that’s when she really went to work. And it shows: In “Running Wild,” a photograph from her second visit, showing a stallion gently nudging a mare’s rear away from the photographer, Cueman caught a rare moment.

“The mare was the first horse, and she started actually coming more or less straight towards me. She was walking and if she had kept coming, would have walked within four or five feet past or to the side of me,” Cueman recalls.

But the stallion didn’t want his mare approaching Cueman. He trotted over and started easing her away from the photographer.

“The two of them became parallel, turned, and I took that one image. It happened so fast,” Cueman says. “I could have easily missed the shot for any number of reasons; this time, I got it.”

Intuition is part of most any successful shot, Cueman says. That, and luck. “I was just able to respond to the situation, and [got] lucky capturing it,” she says.

Another shot, “Dreamland,” shows a horse napping, seemingly only feet away from the viewer: It’s got a lovely, curved neck, a sweet nose nestled into folded forelegs, and a salt-bleach-colored coat.

The proximity, of course, is an illusion. Cueman said she was surrounded by the herd, and shooting with long glass: a 500 millimeter lens, which lets her fill the “canvas” with layers of rich, warm detail.

“It’s a very peaceful and serene environment. You feel every day as though you’re really witnessing life as it’s always been for these horses,” Cueman says. Of her two-week sojourns, she says, she hopes to walk away with four or five images that can make it into the portfolio.

“You try not to put too much pressure on yourself to make it work. You realize it’s all about the art of adventure and the setting,” Cueman explains. “I feel very honored to be witnessing it and to know the history, and what feels now like [the horses] exist in an environment that treasures them, and has their well-being at heart.”

She credits the North Carolina Coastal Reserve and all the organizations working with the state to protect the horses and provide for these moments of contemplation, communion, and art.

Asked her advice for aspiring full-time photographers, she said, “First and foremost, what can really set photographers apart from each other is an absolute passion for what they’re photographing. It’s persistence and repetition, basically, and just keep doing it.”

Cueman says she photographs horses because she finds their forms so compelling: “I’ve known horses all my life, and there’s a form and shape and texture that I am really drawn to. And that, ultimately, is what my images are about, as much as they are about the wonderful horses.”

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