This week, we catch up with Monica Stevenson of Monica Stevenson Photography. She is not only an award-winning commercial photographer, fine artist, and director based in New York City and Tryon, North Carolina, but she's also a fierce dressage competitor! Monica competes her 13-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare, Zoe Claire, at the I-1 level. Let's get to know Monica, shall we?
Monica has had quite the introduction into her riding career. She explains to us how her lessons as a 12-year-old in West Orange, NJ at the Essex Troop expanded into a lifetime with horses. "For the next 4 summers, I spent 8 weeks at Hill Meadow Stables in Pennsylvania learning equitation, jumping, and how to show. We moved from NJ to Puerto Rico when I was 14, where I rode ponies and leased an off-the-track Thoroughbred. This was a crazy time!! During college and my early career in NYC, I dropped riding, as it just was not practical. After establishing myself as a photographer in NYC, I bought another off-the-track TB, Henry, and kept him in Long Island and then rural NJ. It was at this time that I took up dressage. I did not want to break my neck jumping since I was now the owner of my own business! I sold Henry, and bought and sold a few other horses until I found Zoe, who is an angel. I got her when she was 3 and had been under saddle for about 2 days. We are now schooling GP and showing I1!!"
She also goes deeper into her business and how it got started. "I’m both a commercial and fine art photographer. The commercial work is still-life oriented, and I shoot jewelry, accessories, food and beverage, and high-speed liquids. These photographs are shot mainly in studio, and the work is colorful, modern, and luxurious. My fine art work focuses on horses, and at the moment I have two collections—black-and-white prints shot on film from an old Rolleiflex and Hasselblad cameras, and the newer, digital photographs that celebrate, somewhat abstractly, the physicality, sensuality, and vitality of the horse in many disciplines. I started my career in NYC working as an assistant for both fashion and still life photographers and then opened my own studio in the Chelsea section of Manhattan. Editorial work for magazines filled my schedule in the early years, which then progressed to advertising and catalog work. Video and stop-motion animation are now a big part of the jobs that I shoot, and I have made a point of staying current with modern trends, both artistic and technologically. The horse work has been a focus throughout the years, and my move to Tryon, NC has enabled me to expand even more these efforts."
We are stunned hearing about Monica's extensive and successful photography career, and are equally amazed that she can balance being an incredible businesswoman and equestrian at the same time! How does she do it? "With great effort!" she says. "Running one’s own business (and for me, essentially TWO businesses with the commercial and fine art) requires almost constant time and thought. When I lived in NJ, I would ride late at night after coming home from a full day in NYC. Now that I live in Tryon, both my schedule and the geography are more suited to my equine pursuits. I tend to take a break during the day to ride, as the barn is only 15 minutes from both home and studio. My shoots here in the studio in Tryon are usually without clients, which leaves me more of an open schedule. I do find, however, that I don’t have much free time. I’m either working or riding……."
Since riding is such a big part of her life, we find out more about her special four-legged partner. She tells us that Zoe Claire, without a doubt, has been the most influential horse in her life. " In addition to being the perfect upper level amateur’s horse, she has been my photographic muse and model throughout our association together. She is extremely talented in dressage and very athletic. She is also tolerant and smart. She learns her lessons quickly, and allows me to learn with her, as we are going up the levels in tandem. She is not mare-ish in the slightest, and just about never puts up a fuss if I make a mistake. Versatility is her strong suit—we switch from piaffes in the dressage arena to strolling on country trail rides with ease. She is LOVED in the barn, and hangs her head over the bars of her stall to greet and chat with everyone, especially if they smell like food. I have used her repeatedly as a model and inspiration in my horse photography—we have a seasonal series where I hand-painted her with human body paint to match the natural environment around her. And the latest photographic work has been designing custom-made metal sculptures for her to wear. She has gotten to the point where she rolls her eyes when she sees me coming and wonders what the heck I am going to make her do next…."
Sounds like the perfect match! We are inspired hearing about how well these two have learned about life and versatility together. These animals are perhaps our biggest teachers, and Monica tells us about her biggest life lesson with horses and what keeps her coming back for more every day. "I have learned to leave all my feelings of frustration, or anger, or tension behind me when I’m riding. Those sentiments limit our equestrian progress, and riding Zoe with a clear mind is much more successful. Bringing this attitude into my daily life with friends and family has been a great benefit.
"Riding IS tough, but it’s also an art. There is nothing that makes me feel more fulfilled than to overcome a challenge, be it physical or philosophical, and also to make something beautiful in that process. This mirrors my attitude towards my photographic work also. I live for the honest connection I have with Zoe, the authentic affection we show towards each other, and the visible progress we make in our pursuit of dressage. The horse life comes with dogs, too, must usually, and this is just an added bonus!!!"
And finally, we ask Monica for any advice she would have for other equestrians trying to start their own business. She says, "Make sure that you LOVE the business that you will be starting. The hours and days spent growing the business will be so much more satisfying if you love what you do. There is nothing better than a life and career filled with passion—this is what makes the world go ‘round. Be prepared to do things WELL and strive for perfection. Remember to keep your customers happy—without customers we have no business! And remember to take some time off for yourself and your loved ones….."
Thanks for chatting, Monica! Best of luck with Zoe as you head toward the Grand Prix level!