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Bare Back: Photographer Phillip Graybill Reveals Equine Subjects

Posted on 17 September 2013

"Mongo" by Phillip Graybill

“Mongo” by Phillip Graybill

By Annette Hinkle

In recent years, photographer Phillip Graybill has spent a good deal of time capturing imagery that evokes Montauk in the off-season. From colorful shacks near Lazy Point to foggy landscapes of the ocean beach, Graybill, who lives in New York City, has come to know “The End” as few others do.

Graybill’s Montauk imagery is on view now at La Maisonette Gallery in Sag Harbor. The large format encaustic coated photographs (some 60” x 78”) are mounted on hidden frames. While they evoke seaside and rural life in the shoulder season, it is his photos of horses taken at Deep Hollow Ranch that truly speak of the place — and the equine residents that call the place home.

“Montauk is a great place to be, especially in winter when I can explore,” says Graybill who financed the current show through a Kickstarter campaign. “I’m always trying to find different ways to shoot out there. I started shooting at night in the moonlight. I don’t know if I’d still be in New York if I didn’t have Montauk.”

Graybill notes he arrived at his current style while photographing imagery for bands (things like CD covers, collector books and concert visuals). Specifically, it was on a road trip from New Orleans to Los Angeles when Graybill found his focus, so to speak, while shooting imagery for Nine Inch Nails.

“Over the course of a month, they let me do what I wanted to do,” says Graybill. “It was awesome, but difficult. In the end I was going back and forth between New York and L.A., shooting great stuff, but not what they were looking for.”

“I was getting frustrated. I said just let me drive across country – leave me alone,” says Graybill. “I went from New Orleans to California. I had 11 days and shot all kinds of stuff — and that’s the beginning of how I shoot now.”

In the end, everything Graybill shot on that road trip ended up being used as part of the band’s imagery.

“In White Sands, New Mexico I had this amazing moment,” he adds. “I was totally alone with my cameras and I realized how great it was, how lucky I was. It was an important realization of what I was doing.”

This was also the beginning of a style of shooting that has informed Graybill’s imagery in Montauk. While Graybill is now known for his horse portraits, they weren’t on his radar screen until Dee Quinn, his next door neighbor in Montauk, suggested he check out the ranch where she worked.”

“I wasn’t totally into it, but I started shooting the horses,” says Graybill. “Any time it was overcast, that’s when I would go. It’s such a great landscape. It seems like they’re free and there are no fences. I was trying to capture them as if they were wild horses, but it wasn’t working and it was annoying that I wasn’t getting what I wanted.”

Then Graybill received an unexpected gift on the streets of Manhattan which helped refine his vision. While shooting on Minetta Lane in Greenwich Village, where he does regularly, a man approached Graybill and asked if he was going to be there a while. Graybill said he would be, so the man left, only to return with a camera in a plastic bag that he said had been under his sink for 17 years.

“He said ‘I thought you might make good use of it,’” recalls Graybill. “It was a Mamiya C220 from 1975. He said it had a light leak. I took it and went back to the ranch, shot a couple rolls and when I got the film back everything changed. I started shooting differently. The viewfinder is on top so I could put the camera really low and I totally got rid of the landscape and the images become portraits.”

Graybill has since had the camera repaired and still uses it. He notes the camera’s square format made him realize the images would look great printed large — which is how they became huge portraits.

“I started using the horses shape and then started reshooting the whole thing,” says Graybill. “I felt lucky with the horses. I could go whenerver I wanted. I didn’t need permission and I could hang out. They’re almost human. Sometimes I’d go to the ranch and depending on the mood I was in, the horses would pick up on that. Sometimes they wanted nothing to do with me, and sometimes I’d go through the gate and 10 or 15 horses would come running toward me. It was a little scary.”

Though his friend, Dee, get nervous, Graybill has always been at ease with them.

“I was in there and under the horses sometimes, but I wasn’t worried about it,” he says. “I felt lucky.”

“Horse by Sea” a photographic exhibition by Phillip Graybill is on view now at La Maisonette Gallery, 133 Main Street, Sag Harbor. Graybill will be at a reception at the gallery this Saturday, September 21 from 3 to 6 p.m. For more information call 725-0300.

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