Photographer Bob Tabor is the Ansel Adams of the Modern Generation
—Except with a twist; Bob Tabor’s black-and-white and low-contrast color portraits of horses and the ocean are ethereal and effortlessly American. And they pull you right in.
But while Adams photographed the American landscape in high contrast black-and-white, Tabor’s landscapes are often more abstract. A close-up on the break of a wave; a large-scale portrait of a horse’s eye—Tabor focuses on the beauty in the details of some of nature’s most mysterious subjects. His works are equally enigmatic. A black-and-white image of a splash of rustling water could, if you didn’t know what it was, just as easily be a painting, or a slab of granite. That’s part of their unmistakable beauty: Tabor’s work makes you want to stop and examine things a little closer; think, consider, and really take things in.
The former advertising executive and creative director, who got his start in photography only ten years ago after learning how to use a camera while on vacation in Napa, has released his own coffee table books, Horse Whisperings, Polo: Equine Warriors, HORSE/HUMAN: An Emotional Bond, and Dreamscapes: Finding a place to call your own; Ralph Lauren decorates their stores around the world with Bob Tabor’s stunning equestrian images; and exhibited his work all around New York City and The Hamptons, where he currently lives and works. Now Bob is aiming global as interest in his works pours in.
A selection of some of Tabor’s latest work will be on view as part of the opening of BlackBook’s new experiential art gallery, “BlackBook Presents,” beginning November 28 in Dumbo, Brooklyn.
We spoke with Bob Tabor at length about his work and show at BlackBook Presents:
Tell me about your background.
For 46 years, I was an Executive Creative Director for advertising agencies and worked on leading accounts with major brands globally. I worked with Alka Seltzer, Dentyne Ice, off-track betting—I introduced that way back when—pharmaceutical accounts, everything, and I won every award in the ad industry. But I always had that feeling of wanting to create. It was just that I was always creating for other people—that’s what I did during the week. Then, the weekends came, and I didn’t want to do anything except get my head together and look forward to the next week. So, I never did my own creative work for me. Then, for my 60th birthday, my—at that point—new wife and I went on vacation to Napa, and she bought me a point and shoot, simple digital camera. But really just for fun, and to enjoy the holiday. But what happened was, the moment I picked up that camera, I started to see things differently and from different perspectives. I shot non-stop for that entire week in the vineyard, and that started the whole thing.
When did you go from shooting for yourself for fun on that vineyard to being a professional artist?
Pretty much immediately, people saw my work and started putting it in galleries. One day, while I was photographing in a vineyard in Bridgehampton, I noticed a horse being ridden by what looked like a model. I followed them, and ended up finding the stables. So, I picked up my camera again and just started shooting the horses. A week later, I came back to share the images that I took because I felt that the horses looked like sculptures, and the way that the light hit them—it was just a whole new world for me. A gentleman came in while I was sharing the work, and said, ‘That’s my horse! Is the photo for sale?’ I mean, I hadn’t even thought about selling my work. But he told me, ‘Buddy, I think you should meet my boss.’ I asked him who he worked for, and he ended up being one of the store designers for Ralph Lauren. So, talk about stepping in it. I stepped in it. The rest is history, and my love for horses, my love for photography—it grows every single day.
Do you think your job in advertising had anything to do with your career move?
For me, it really was a natural progression of what I was doing for others—I became a brand, and the brand of Bob Tabor is very sacred to me. I respect the work, I respect the prices people pay for it, I don’t just look to sell and undercut prices, and I only make a limited edition of eight of each of my fine art images. But I let people order it in whatever size they want. So, each one is limited edition, but each one is also an edition of its own. I truly don’t believe it’s art unless you bring it into your life. That’s why I don’t want to feel limited for the consumer to say, ‘Oh it’s so nice, but I wish my wall was smaller,’ or ‘This is four feet and my wall is twelve feet.’ And again, because of my background in graphic design, playing with negative space, the way I crop an image—those things are very important to me, and part of what, I think, makes my work my own.
If I can’t make things that are different than all of the other photographers out there, I just won’t do it. I need everything I make to be mine—even my polo work. So, when I’m shooting polo matches, I don’t care about the scenery, I don’t care about the people watching the game—I want to see the horse. He’s the warrior. I want to see his muscles, I want to see his eyes. In all of my equine work, the star is the horse, the eyes of the horse and the opening of the soul of the animal—the beauty, and the sensitivity. That’s what I try to capture in every portrait I do.
How do you think your advertising work has affected your eye as a photographer?
Because of advertising, I have that graphic design sense where I know how to look at a page, or a canvas, or in this case, a photo, and now how to make it appealing for a consumer to stop when they’re looking at a magazine with a hundred other photos trying to gain their attention. So, the way I do things with my photography is also very graphic. Also, the conceptual fun of thinking up an idea to make it inviting, to create something that makes someone stop and view something differently—that’s equally important in photography. It’s about how you present it, and how they interpret it to make it art. It’s basically the same job again—I keep on doing the same thing over and over. Groundhog Day.
Before advertising, when you were younger, did you ever have any interest in the arts?
No. I never had an interest. The camera was always only there to take photos of my children when they were growing up. Before that, when I was in high school, I was accepted into the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and my major at that point was fine art. That’s what I wanted to be—a fine artist, and teach college level art so I could put some food on the table. In school, I really excelled at painting, but I had a real dose of reality when my father sat me down and said, ‘You’re going to have to support yourself. You got into a bad habit eating five times a day, and I can’t keep it going.’ So, I went back to my counselor at SVA and asked him how I could stay in the art world, but know that I could make a living when I graduate, and he said advertising. So, that’s what I did, and truthfully, I loved it as much as I loved fine art, because I was still creating.
Walk me through your process. The idea of using natural light, but replacing the natural background is really unique. Why did you start doing that?
Well, I really break my work up into two worlds: the equine world and the landscape world. With the equine world, I want to take away anything that’s distracting the viewer from the face and eyes of the animal. It works in my favor to tell the story of the animal. So, I do actually photograph animals in the worst possible lighting—hard lighting in the middle of the day, early afternoon, when it’s so hot and so bright. I only shoot the animal in their environments—their barns, their stables—in their comfortable environment, with natural lighting so they don’t get uncomfortable with lights flashing all around them. My shutter is constantly being clicked, so I am the sound that they hear—they think a shutter is part of me—and I can go up and stick that camera right up next to their eye, because they trust me. I talk to them. There’s no rush for me to get a photograph. So, I really try to build a friendship—a bond—with these animals, so that they’ll let me shoot them in their most special, and vulnerable way.
What about the process with your ocean graphics?
The ocean graphics—there’s actually two parts to the story. The first is that I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean. Growing up, my parents ran a hotel in The Rockaways in Queens, and during summertime, I spent my days at the beach, from the time I was an infant until I was six years old. So, I was always drawn to the ocean. For me, like for most people, the ocean really is a space for rebirth; it’s a calming factor; it’s soothing, even when the ocean is at its roughest. Even right now, I’m sitting here looking at a photo I took of the ocean that’s currently in my living room. Just looking at gives me an instant calm feeling.
There was a series I did called ‘Dreamscapes,’ and they were really just the beauty of the ocean. From that series, I started to delve into the thought process of my own life—thinking of the future, thinking of the past, thinking of the moment—and I started to do another series called ‘White Seascapes.’ They’re all bleached white, no color—just grays and whites. There’s a whole series like that, which will be featured in my new book, Splash, which will be my fifth coffee table book.
But this series deals with something that I was unaware of. It was not only dealing with the future and enjoying the moment, and getting caught up in the thought process, but there was uncomfortable pattern coming out regarding my past. While I was working on it, in post-production, taking out the color and giving it this more heavenly look, there was this uncomfortable pattern I started to notice. The work is well received and truly, people enjoy it. But that’s when I met [Blackbarn’s] Mark [Zeff]. He saw the white on white photo and asked me to sit down for a meeting. So, I went to go meet him and he made me uncomfortable for the very first time since I had worked in advertising. He said, ‘Push the envelope. Give me something different. Take the water and change it.’ That just totally shocked me, and at first, I thought ‘No way. That’s not Bob Tabor.’ But then I started to go back and did this major exploratory, and wound up with that whole series of ‘Splash’ pieces, which are actually the tip of the surf from the ‘White on White’ series.
You said you were having a sort of bad, anxious feeling when looking at the seascapes. What was that about? Did you ever figure it out?
I’m the baby of three brothers, and fortunately, both of my brothers are both still alive. But I went to my brothers and said, ‘I’m dealing with something with this water process and I can’t figure it out.’ I don’t swim. I’m 70 years old, I live near the beach, I have a pool, and I’m fascinated by the ocean. But I just can’t put my head under water. My brothers, who are 8 and 16 years older than me finally said, ‘Well, didn’t Mom ever tell you that you almost drowned?’ What the fuck? I just had an intuitive reaction. Apparently, my father—like I said, we spent summers at the beach—when I was two years old, carried me into the ocean, and a big wave hit him, knocking me out of his arms. I obviously was looking under water to see the type of lighting that I’m now re-creating in my art work.
What’s your favorite part about photographing the subjects you do?
When I photograph, I know exactly what I’m looking for before it happens—whether it’s the churning of the waves, I’ll stop and wait for a particular feeling that I just know the ocean is going to deliver, or if it’s a horse and I pick up a certain head movement as it happens. I’m a quick read of what’s around me. And really, I see the finished photo before I even take out my camera. That’s why, when I’m commissioned to do work, I say, ‘It make take an hour, or it may take a week. I’ll stay there until I have it, and I know I have it when I leave, otherwise I don’t. I’ll stay as long as it takes to get the right moment. I don’t look at photos after the fact and think, ‘Oh that’s great! Let’s use that one.’ I try to make it exactly how I think it should be while I’m there in the moment.
How do you know if you got the shot?
It’s a commitment. But it gets to the point of trusting your vision, and knowing what looks right, and what you’re trying to communicate with your piece. You just have to be able to step away, and trust your instincts.
You do use some color in your work, with the equine photos and some of your ocean landscapes, but a lot of your work is in black-and-white. Why is that?
If you look at my Dreamscapes, they’re all color. But I love the ethereal quality of the black-and-white that I really try to communicate in my work. Each subject matter I take on has its own personality. I try not to set any rules in what I’m trying to accomplish—it’s very important for me to start with a fresh canvas each time you sit down with something.
Remind me—how long have you been doing photography professionally?
I had my first show, my first sale to Ralph Lauren—everything—in 2008.
How do you think your work has grown or changed in the last decade?
I see graphically a sophistication, and a sort of awareness of what I’m doing, particularly in post-production, within this media. I also feel my thinking has broadened, not for the 8 ½ x 11 ½ page, but large-scale images. It’s not a price factor with me, as much as it is the impression that the image leaves. So, if I could, I’d do everything in large, large scale.
I love the impact. I love that you step into the subject matter, that you become one. You’re standing at the shore and the sea is at your footsteps. I love that you can step right into the stable and look right into the horse’s eyes. You and your thoughts become transported into that environment. If imagery is small, it’s confined—you dominate it. You don’t become a part of it. And with all of my work, I want the viewer to be a part of it. I want to get them thinking.
Having started with photography so late in life, how do you see your career moving forward? What do you hope for yourself?
I hope that I can continue to learn and discover the love I have for the arts. It may be taking photography and marrying it with other media; maybe I do a 360 and do photography as well as painting and putting them together. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I’m very happy with today, and I think if you feel that there’s always something to learn, and something that brings excitement to your daily routine—it’s fantastic.
What do you want people to take away from your work?
I want people to work while they’re looking at my work. Yes, I want them to feel a connection, a love for the work. But I want them to write the storyline of the visual. That’s why none of my works have a name, they all have a number—because I want you to look at that piece of art and say, ‘Oh my god, that reminds me of when I was a child,’ or ‘Oh my god, I’m going through a rough time now and this gives me some peace,’ or ‘Oh my god, look at the horse.’ A woman stopped me once after she saw one of my photos and asked me ‘Where did you shoot that horse?’ I told her I didn’t know and she told me she knew the minute she saw it that it was her horse from when she was much younger. So, she kept asking me where I photographed it and I told her, finally, ‘I don’t remember but if that’s your horse, then that’s your horse.’ And she bought it. It’s those types of experiences that I want to create with my art. You write your own script—I just supply the visuals.
More of Bob Tabor’s work will be on view at the BlackBook Presents opening on November 28 through January 1, 2019 at 20 John Street in Brooklyn, NY.
2015, ‘HORSE/HUMAN: An Emotional Bond’, Glitterati
2014, ‘Dreamscapes: Finding a place to call your own’, Antique Collectors Club Distribution
2013, ‘Polo: Equine Warriors’, Antique Collectors Club Distribution
2011, Featured in Linda O’Keefe’s ‘Brilliant: White in Design’, The Monacelli Press
2010, ‘Horse Whisperings’, Antique Collectors Club Distribution
2018, Emmanuel Fremin Gallery at REVEAL International Contemporary Art Fair
2018, Contempop Gallery at Market Art + Design
2016, Contempop Gallery at CONTEXT Art Miami
2015, Contempop Expressions Galleries at Art Toronto