An Interview with Johnny Johnston

Thinking Visually An Interview with Johnny Johnston   Copyright 1992 by R.J.CADRANELL from Arabian Visions October 1992 Used by permission of RJCadranell  

        One of the first and best of the Arabian horse photographers is Johnny Johnston. Since the 1960s, his name has appeared on photographs of everything from beloved family companions to the giants of the breed, including *Bask and *Serafix. We caught up with Johnny this summer at a ranch shoot and were able to talk when he was “in between” horses.

Arabian Visions: How did you become interested in photography?

        Johnny Johnston: I became interested in photography when I was maybe nine or ten years old. I had always been an artist and did a lot of sketching when I was very young. In the first grade my teacher had me drawing things. I’ll never forget when she had me go out and look at turkeys and draw the Thanksgiving turkey. Then when I was in second and third grade I’d draw sketches of the other kids: just rough sketches of their faces and so on, for two cents a piece.

        Then I found out about photography. Big revelation. I found out it was a whole lot easier to take pictures, and sell the pictures, than it was to sketch the little rascals. My first camera was a Falcon. It was a cute little camera, and it cost me a lot of money: $6.95! I started taking pictures and doing contact sheets and selling them. Through high school I was interested in sports, particularly boxing. Photography fell by the wayside until I got in the service and bought an Argus C-3. Some of you people who go back a few years will remember the little Argus C-3 35mm. That wasn’t a bad camera.           One of the ways I made money as a youngster was as a Saddlebred hot walker. They had several of us children 11 or 12 years old who liked horses. We started cleaning stalls and when they found out we got along with the horses they’d let us hot walk Saddlebreds. I made 25 cents an hour. So I had the horse interest and the photography interest. As a child I always dreamed about owning a black stallion. Sometimes it was a white stallion, because I saw the Lone Ranger, but it was always a stallion. And black was my color. I was about six years old.

        The interest in horses was there from fooling with those big, powerful Saddlebreds — to an 11-year-old, that’s a lot of horrse. They were gentle giants. They were never ornery, at least the ones I had. They weren’t treated quite as rough as they are today. We didn’t have any problems with them. We’d clean them up and walk them down and cool them out and take the saddles off. Finally they put me up on top of a few of them and I decided right then I wasn’t going to be much of a rider because of the way I’m built.

        The first time I actually took a horse picture to sell, I was in my early 20s. I was in the Air Force, and every time I would go to a different base, I would look up every ranch I could find in a fifty mile radius. I’d go out there and I’d clean the stalls or mend fence so they’d let me ride. Some people have a natural affinity for horses, and when you do, it’s a never ending love. You just can’t help it. You just want to be around horses. When I was in the Air Force, every spare minute I’d be around horses. I started photographing them, just because I liked them. By then I’d learned how to develop my own film and did a lot of enlarging. I would take pictures and trade pictures if they’d let me ride the horse. That was a lot easier than cleaning stalls.

        My first professional pictures, if you look at it like that, were in my very early 20s. I actually started selling them, because apparently I began to get some sort of a knack. People I wasn’t working for would come out and say, “Why don’t you take one for me? What will you charge me?” I think I charged $5 a print. So I started photographing professionally about age 25 or 26. I got out of the service in 1963 and immediately started photographing horses for a living. I was a B-52 navigator and every time I landed a B-52, I had two or three people wanting me to come photograph their horses. It seemed like a way I could do what I wanted to do with both photography and horses.   Were there any photographers who influenced your early work?

        There were no photographers who influenced my early work because there were no standard Arabian horse pictures back then. When I became a full fledged B-52 navigator I bought myself an Arabian stallion called Robu, by Royal Son (who was bred by Frank McCoy) out of the mare Labu, who was an Abu Farwa daughter. A fellow named Bruce Clark helped me pick him out.

        I made friends with Bobbi Gassert, whose husband flew tankers. She had maybe eight or ten El Nattall bred horses. El Nattall was at one time a very famous ranch in southern California, owned by one of the finest people in the Arabian breed, Marietta Whitcomb. And Marietta spent hours teaching me Arab pedigrees.

        At Bobbi’s I got some drafting paper. I would draw pictures of what I thought, if I saw the image, would make me know it was an Arabian. Not a Quarter Horse, not a Morgan — if I looked at this image I would know it was an Arabian. I must have spent several months. I’d draw a picture and Bobbi would look at it and say, “That’s pretty close. Let’s go try to make the horses do it.” Then we’d go out and practice with the horses. When I landed a B-52 I’d usually go and spend two or three hours and we’d fool with the horses and fool with the sketches.

        I looked at some of Lady Wentworth’s pictures, and I looked at Saddlebred pictures and Morgan horse pictures and I looked at paintings of Arabians, and I finally came up with a drawing which was probably a composite of a lot of different things I’d seen. I’d never seen any photographs like it, but I’d seen paintings: “I know that’s an Arabian because of the tail and arched neck.”

        Back then we had a problem. We had what they called the “California stretch.” You pulled the neck out as far as you could pull it, whipped the front legs, and that was the way you stood your horses. And they did not look like Arabs. But I drew the picture and then I had Bruce Clark stand my horse like I wanted him stood. When I brought the pictures back and showed Bruce he became my biggest promoter. He said that was the best horse picture he’d seen and asked if I would take some of his horses. The word started spreading. But Bruce Clark stood up my first Arabian horse, and that was probably 1960 or 61.   Are there any other photographers whose work you admire?

        I’m a fan of Jerry Sparagowski’s and Polly Knoll’s. I think Jeff Little is getting to be a fine photographer; he’s come a long way in a very short time. Judith I think does some outstanding work, some beautiful work. She’s also a very fine artist, by the way.

Do you photograph breeds other than Arabians? Do you photograph things other than horses?

        I photograph a lot of flowers, a lot of cattle — I used to do the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. I did all the cattle, sheep, swine, chickens, rabbits, the whole thing! I did the State Fair of Texas, probably for 15 years. I photographed everything including the horses there. It was a 16 day show. I photographed the Appaloosa World for 14 or 15 years, the Appaloosa nationals for several years, the Morgan Horse nationals, Walking Horses — I was raised with Saddlebreds, so I’vee photographed too many Saddlebreds. I photographed dogs, I photographed fighting cocks, dog races — I photographed everything you can think of.

You’ve photographed many famous Arabians over the years. Would you tell us about some of the ones you admired the most?

        Probably the most impressive horse I guess I’ve ever seen was a horse called *Serafix (Raktha x *Serafina), and Fadjur would run a very close second. During their day they were absolutely incredible. The horse that got me started in Arabians was a horse called Ibn Hanrah (Hanrah x Ronara). I watched him in the three-year-old class at Denver. I’d gone down to buy a Quarter Horse and Ibn Hanrah came in the ring with a little skinny fellow named Walter Chapman showing him — things have changed, huh Walter? — he was the 29th horse in the ring, and I’ll never forget that horse. He was a bay horse, and the most beautiful horse I had ever seen. At that point in time — this was I think in 1953 or 1954 — I immediately went to the library to find everything I could about Arabians, because I didn’t know anything about them. All I knew was Saddlebreds and Quarter Horses. A librarian got me started on Walter Farley’s Black Stallion series. I read everything he ever wrote, and then got to meet him in person, and finally became fairly good friends.

        *Bask (Witraz x Balalajka) was probably the most elegant horse I’ve ever seen. When he came in this country, we had some magnificent horses like *Silver Drift (Raktha x *Serafina) and *Serafix. But *Bask suddenly had a neck as long as *Silver Drift’s neck, but it was very fine. *Bask had action like I’d never seen on an Arab before, and I don’t think anyone else had, either. He had very free shoulders, and not just shoulders. It wasn’t trappy action. There’ve been a lot of Arabs that had a real high action, but it was trappy. *Bask had high reaching action. The humerus would actually come out past the vertical. I’ve got pictures that can prove it. His humerus — it was not just his shoulder working — that humerus would actually come out past the vertical, which gave him long reaching as well as high action, which was totally different from anything I or anybody else had ever seen. It was something that you saw in a really good five-gaited horse, but I’d never seen it in an Arab before.

        I always thought Fadjur (Fadheilan x Bint Sahara) was the most typey Arab. And Fadjur had one of the great minds. Fadjur was one of those horses who was a very mental horse — by that I mean a horse that’s very responsive to humans, who follows their lead and does what pleases humans. I think Fadjur as much as any horse I’ve ever seen enjoyed being around people.

        The Real McCoy probably had the most extreme head. It was incredible. The Real McCoy was a big grey horse raised by Frank McCoy. Then Fadheilan (*Fadl x *Kasztelanka) was one that I liked a lot. He was up at Harry Linden’s place in Spokane. Fadheilan and Fadjur had incredible tail carriage. It was unbelievable, and they put it on every baby they had. I never saw a bad tail on a Fadjur or Fadheilan baby.

Has your work changed over the years?

        My work has changed a lot. I used to do 35 or 40 horse shows a year. I did that for 15 or 18 years. I was probably one of the two original on-the-spot photographers. I had black and white pictures ready within two hours of the time they were taken. When I did color, I found a color lab in the town where I was working and had the color back generally within half a day. Now, I do really nothing but ranch work, and basically Arabian ranch work.

        Every time you turn around you learn something new. I watch everything other photographers do. I look at paintings. When I go to a movie I’m always trying to see if there’s something in the movie I can apply. Everything visual changes your outlook on things visual. I think that’s a fundamental. No human being to my knowledge ever gets tired of things visual, because they’re always changing. As they’re changing you’re always learning, so you never get bored, and you never quit learning. So your business does change, constantly.

        I think probably not very many people know me anymore. It used to be everybody knew me, because I did 35 or 40 horse shows a year. Every horseman of every breed in the country I swear used to know me. Now very few do, because they’re all new people. “Johnny what? Oh, that’s who. Excuse me.” They don’t know who I am anymore. If you’re not out there in front, why would they?

What three things do amateur photographers most frequently overlook when they photograph horses?

        The background is the most important thing. Clean up the manure. Make sure nothing’s growing out of the horse. You don’t want phone poles or trees growing out of the horse. Be sure the fence line does not sit on top of the horse’s back. If you’ve got a fence taller than the horse, you’re out of luck. But if you can possibly do it, get down low enough so the fence line is not on top of the horse’s back. Second is watch the foreground. Don’t let manure and garbage or even cigarette butts clutter the foreground. Get them out of the picture. The third thing is that amateur photographers are not ready to shoot. Have the camera set up and ready to go, then worry about the horse. All you should have to do is focus and push a button.

Do you have any comments to make on the changes in grooming and presentation that have taken place over the years?

        Personally, I don’t like clown masks on a horse, and I don’t like a horse that looks like a caricature of a horse. If what God created and man has bred isn’t good enough, then we’re in a lot of serious trouble. The extreme “caricaturization,” I call it, to me is absolutely grotesque. I just don’t like it. If people do like that, when I photograph their horses I try to talk them into toning it down: “Let’s make him look like a horse.” I hate greasy black eyes and noses in a picture. It doesn’t look like an Arab. It’s a mask. It’s a clown face. That’s my opinion, whatever that’s worth to you. But it’s your horse. Do what you want. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not going to tell you what to do. But I don’t like it.

Where is the horse market right now?

        People who are buying horses now are buying them because they really like and want to be around horses. They’re not buying them for investments. In a lot of respects this may be good. If you’re a good, conscientious breeder you don’t have to worry about what kind of home the horse is going to go to. If somebody buys a horse because they love the horse they’re going to take the best care of it they can, and they’re going to try to keep learning about the horse. Hopefully the horse will become a teacher and they will start to get along and everybody will have fun. That’s what it’s supposed to be. The only value of a horse is the fun. It’s really a four-legged recreational vehicle, when you think about it. Except unlike other recreational vehicles you can fall in love with him, pet him, groom him, and talk to him. You’d look kind of silly talking to a Ferrari, although I probably would if I had one.

Out of all the photographs you’ve taken, do you have any that are particular favorites?

        I have lots of photographs that are favorites. The four fillies comes to mind immediately. I took that up at a place called Sir William Farm. That was used for years. The picture of Tornado (*Bask x *Silwara) trotting in the ring: They’ve used that in every way, and painted him bay and black and white and everything you name. He had a real high trot and his head was turned almost to the middle of his body and he was looking up real high. Everybody’s used that in every conceivable painting and ad. That was one of my favorites. I had another one of Tornado early in the morning coming across a field full of fog. Probably the *Bask halter shot is one of my favorites, only because the people who knocked *Bask finally got to see what he really looked like when he was stood up about the best he could be stood. Gene LaCroix talked me into doing that picture because I didn’t think we’d ever get a halter shot. So Gene talked me into trying it one more time and sure enough the horse stood up.

What distinguishes a Johnny Johnston photograph from other photographs?

        I try to use the least amount of makeup possible on the horses I photograph. I do want to see a horse well groomed. I like the hairs in place. Rather than cut the eyelashes I’d prefer to use mascara because I worry about flies a little bit.

        When I photograph babies I do everything in my power not to cut the whiskers off, and particularly not to cut the feelers around the eyes of babies, because they don’t see well at close range and they’ll knock their little eyes out. And leave the hair in the ears with those babies. If you take the hair out of the ears with those babies, the flies are going to drive him crazy. Why put a horse through that for a picture? To me it’s not worth it. I try to tell people, “With baby pictures, just make them as clean as you can and do them natural.” It doesn’t make that much difference to the picture. It’s a baby. He’s going to change in six months so why put him through the misery?

        I think my pictures are a little more natural. I think my halter pictures are a little bit better balanced than most. But there are a lot of good photographers out there. I think the Arabian horse breed should consider itself lucky because there is no other breed with the same level of high quality photographers. And most of them I’ve got a lot of respect for.

Are some horses more photogenic than others?

        Lots of horses are photogenic, and lots of horses are just coyote-ugly and it’s not their fault. But every horse has some angle you can do something with. Maybe a horse with a common head has great tail carriage and fantastic action. There’s always something you can do if you’re a photographer, and the horse will show you what it is if you will watch him.

Anything you’d like to add?

        I started making an income at this in 1959 or 1960, and started making a living in 1963. I just hope I’m around and all my folks are around for another 30, or 40 or 50 years so I can keep doing it. Because this is what I do. I had a guy ask me once, “Johnny, if you got two million dollars, what would you do?” Well, I’d take horse pictures. Maybe I would give them away, and take only those horses I was interested in. But I’d be taking horse pictures. And I’ve had people ask if I ever burn out. Sometimes you can get aggravated with people, but if you try to understand a horse, and understand and work from his mind, you can see why they do what they do. They’ll teach you. I never get tired of it.