Thursday, May 19, 2016


PHOTOGRAPHER AND ARTIST LELAND NEFF TRAVELS THE GLOBE CAPTURING THE CONNECTION OF PEOPLE TO THEIR HORSES. Not mane equine artists can say they had a public showing of more than 200 drawings at the age of six. Leland Neff can, and his stories of adventures from around the globe weave an amazing, almost unbelievable tale that arrives full circle back to his roots -- horses. He's just as at home with the gauchos of Argentina as he is with the fashion world's supermodels and high profile clients like Reebok, Saks Fifth Avenue, Barney's and Bloomingdale's. Leland is the son of an adventuresome naval fighter pilot who landed in various locales across the U.S. and abroad and encouraged his son to embrace the local lifestyle. As a result, Leland is an avid horseman, swimmer, skier, wrestler and a black belt in judo for pleasure, not to mention an accomplished international photographer and artist. It started in Texas, where Leland was placed on a barrel racing horse and taught to ride at the age of three. When he asked his father how he had learned to ride in rodeos, he said that the great horse he had taught him everything he needed to know. After the family moved to Rhode Island when Leland was still young, he competed against adults in horse shows because there were no children's classes at the time. He recalls riding western in outfits hom handmade and attracting quite a lot of attention from the local media. The next move to Naples, Italy forced Leland to sell his horse. Dressage became his dad's interest but Leland hated the training and quit riding for several years. A high school friend, with whom Leland still keeps in contact, invited him to go riding and that very night he came home and asked his father for another horse. One horse grew to five that were kept on farmland a lady donated to Leland as pasture to care for his horses. He continued riding western and took lessons in hunt seat only to discover he was riding a jumper by heart. His horse kept approaching jumps while he was taking lessons and finally flew over a five foot jump with Leland on bare back. They proceeded to train for competitive open jumper classes. All the while, Leland was adept at drawing and art which started with that first showing of horse drawings, which he largely credits to Walter Foster's book How to Draw Horses. He left Italy and the horses behind to attend art school at Pratt Institute in New York where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of fine arts degree. He then left to tour Europe and wound up in the Caribbean, painting while living amongst fishermen. A showing of his works from the Caribbean found Leland back in New York, where he stayed doing commercial fashion illustration and photography work for the next 15 years. The photographer lifestyle of jetting from New York to Paris and Milan didn't allow for Leland to have horses of his own but it did connect him with some interesting people, even a few horse people. He would read any book involving horses and attend as many horse shows as possible to pursue this passion from Childhood. He marveled at one of the first supermodels he worked with- a fellow horse lover- who would book modeling jobs based on major horse events around the world. Leland would like to think he's following a bit in her footsteps today. Through a fashion connection in Paris, he jumped on the opportunity to move to the horse country of Argentina six years ago where he had a macrobiotic health spa. (with the famous model, Pelito Galvez) But Leland's attention was really on buying a horse there. "It was completely horse country where I lived in Argentina. They didn't even pave the roads because everyone rides horses. There are hitching posts in town," he describes. "They have this thing called 'envidia' which means a sort of jealousy for good horses. They keep their good horses to pass along to the next generation like a dowry. I couldn't speak Spanish at the time so they kept bringing me these three-legged horses and mules and old, ancient horses. Finally, I saw this race horse that was being washed in the river. It was the most beautiful horse I'd ever seen." After 6 months, he ended up buying the bloodline of this horse, which he still keeps today. Leland began his current "horse project' - a series of equestrian photographs and paintings while living in Argentina. He captured the commitment and reverence the Argentinean people have for their horses in dramatic images he encountered there. "if they have a saddle on the horse, it's very unusual because they have such little money. Gauchos (ranch hands or cowboys" are lucky if htey have shoes. They take a foam pad and they have a bicycle inner tube tied around the girth and that's their saddle. You might see parts of a jockey unifor here or there, but then they are racing these amazing thoroughbreds." Leland sold his property but still owns horses in Argentina and makes the long trip to ride whenever possible. He has plans to return and photograph gauchos on an estancia (ranch) and the spirited "competition" among them with their 12 color-matched horses - "fabulous subjects for portrait work," he envisions. He'll snatch up any horse-related projects that come his way commercially like a recent polo photography assignment for GQ magazine or the invitation to attend the more traditional version of England's hunt in full color. He's done 13 portrait commissions in the last year, most notably one of Athena Onassis, and is in the collection of Isabella Rossellini, Jeremy Irons, and Brigitte Bardot. Perhaps they're attracted to the fast, finished style Leland describes as realistic in the sense of his idol John Singer Sargent. "I left the city over a year ago. I never felt like a city person or that I was really emotionally there." A more relaxed Leland now resides in the rural Long Island countryside of East Hampton, New York. He's taking the summer off to complete the horse project and to enjoy exhibiting with the Hampton Gallery at the Hampton Classic. "I'm very in tune with nature and the seasons in East Hampton. In the city, I had the constant feeling of unrest. Here, I'm a different man." But don't think Leland's feet will be planted in the Hamptons long. After the Classic, he's headed out west to Utah and then back to Argentina. He may wind up in Mongolia shooting their version of the hunt on horseback to round out his collection of people connecting with horses for the series- which he hopes will expand to include postcards, a calendar and a book documenting horse stories and his frequent flying around the world. The Equine Image, written by Nancy Ann Thompson

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