Tell us a little about yourself.
My name is Shelby and I am a New York-based queer equine and wedding photographer, as well as an actor! I’ve had horses in my life forever, but I only started really riding when I went to college. I live in the city and commute to Long Island where I ride, and often help exercise the IHSA horses at West Point. I was co-captain of my IHSA team in college with my incredible friend Madison, who’s one of the best horse people I’ve ever met!
I started photography when I graduated from NYU as a means of staying creative while auditioning. I’m passionate about storytelling, and finding a way to do that off-stage in between auditions was one of the best things I ever did for myself. Whether I’m shooting a wedding or documenting a rider’s day from the mounting block to the dismount (and, of course, the post-round cookies), I’m doing exactly what I’m passionate about doing in theatre: showing life as it is in its most honest moments and holding a mirror back up to the people and horses in front of me.
What kept me going through six to twelve or even fourteen-hour days during my conservatory training at NYU was my passion for all of this– painting humanity in its most honest light, no matter how difficult or ugly it may be. This tone does not, of course, extend into my wedding and equine work, but it is at the heart of it. I’m passionate about the moments in between, the honesty of the moment between resting your face against your horse’s neck and the pat that follows, the quiet moments before a ride when you give your horse an affirming pat or nose poke that says “ok, let’s do this I love you,” or your 10 minutes of alone time following your wedding a ceremony, something I can only see through a crack in the door down the hall because it’s best left untouched by the camera, though a shot of it from afar speaks to its intimacy and importance.
In addition to the incredible people and animals I spend my life painting through my lens, I’m passionate about LGBTQIA+ rights and am always working towards providing education and awareness for the community. It’s a fundamental principle that every person deserves to live as they are and as the person they might grow to discover they want to be. The essence of this– intersectionality, love, respect, and equality– is something I believe, is best taught through art.
How did you get involved with horses?
My aunt grew up riding and always took me to the barn when we visited her during the summer. I couldn’t ride growing up, so I immediately made it a weekly priority when I moved to New York to study at NYU. I would go out once a week for a lesson, which slowly became twice a week, and then eventually full-time when I leased my first horse. I like to describe myself as a fun amateur who’s just happy to show and trail ride, and being able to travel and photograph the shows that I do around the world is a fun little bonus to that life!
Where are you based out of and travel to?
I am based in Manhattan and travel wherever! This summer I’m traveling more than usual and get to shoot quite a few shows in Europe.
What is your artistic background? Did you always know you wanted to be a photographer?
I have been an actor for the majority of my life and trained professionally up until I went to NYU, where I got a BFA in Drama. I’ve always loved photography, and I started doing it professionally when I realized I wouldn’t be artistically stimulated or happy after college working a day job while waiting for auditions and jobs in the acting industry.
I started building my portfolio with a group of friends at a program in Oxford in the summer of 2017, and everything just took off from there. I began growing my business as a wedding and portrait photographer, starting out shooting city hall weddings and eventually moving up to bigger weddings. I’ve refined my wedding niche over the years to be geared more toward the rustic Brooklyn warehouse wedding or an intimate elopement, and I love it!
What is your favorite thing to photograph?
In my wedding work, I love smaller weddings and elopements. They feel much more personal and intentional. Beyond that, I am partial to queer weddings. There’s an indescribable intimacy, intention, and gratitude in them that you can really only understand by being there, be it as a guest or vendor.
My three favorite horse shows to photograph are Dinard, Old Salem, and the local derby that I photograph on Long Island every June! They’re definitely all held on a different scale, but I love their respective vibrance, personality, and air despite how different they all are from each other.
What is a special memory you’ve experienced while photographing?
My favorite recent memory in my wedding work is a wedding I shot in December 2022. It was my last wedding of 2022 and serendipitously a queer wedding the same week federal protections for marriage equality were signed and codified into law. While that’s still a battle being fought on state levels, it was a brief moment of peace, and celebrating a queer wedding the same week was an indescribable kind of exciting.
In my equine work, it’s tough to say. An easy one is definitely when I accompanied Ashley Neuhof (who is amazing and I owe everything to) on a studio shoot she was doing for Gazelle right after her retirement. That mare is absolute magic and one of my two favorite horses of all time (shoutout to Lucifer V who I also met and definitely cried in front of), and it was nothing short of a dream come true.
Something more personal that frequently replays in my mind is a photo I took of an incredibly accomplished rider after his daughter competed in the jumpers for the first time. I was working for Ashley Neuhof, and we were a bit tight on time that day as it was one of the busiest weeks of WEF. I knew we would cut it close, but I just knew Ring 9 was where the magic would be. This rider tends to keep to himself and his candid moments are quite soft (though of course special), but when his daughter stepped out of the ring, I remember the whole thing in slow motion: her trainers gave her thumbs up, he called her from behind the fence on the far side of the warm-up and hopped the fence to throw his arms around her and cried in her lap. Despite the hustle and bustle of the puddle jumper warm-up ring, the moment was simultaneously quiet and grand. There were years of hard work, generations of riders, and dozens of horses and ponies in that hug. It’s my favorite photo I’ve ever taken, and I genuinely don’t see anything topping it no matter how many bucket list shows or weddings I find myself at throughout my career.
How would you describe your photography style?
I would describe my style as documentary. I don’t get too close and describe myself as a fly on the wall who gets involved if they really have to. I find that giving the people and horses I photograph enough space to be comfortable with each other instead of worrying about me being too involved gives them a chance to be most themselves. I think we all have the shared experience of posing ourselves when we’re in front of a camera,
What details do you enjoy focusing on in your work?
The moments in between. They’re often the ones you’re so caught up in that you forget there’s a camera around, whether it be that first step out of the ingate after your double clear, the massive hug that leaves you almost hanging off of your horse’s neck once you dismount, or your first 10 minutes alone as a couple after your ceremony in a separate room while your guests bustle into cocktail hour.
What is something on your bucket list to photograph?
My current horse show bucket list items are (of course) Spruce Meadows and Aachen.
As a personal project, I’ve always wanted to create a photo essay on life in smaller towns that are far removed from technology, social media, and the like. More and more, I’ve found myself compulsively opening Instagram or TikTok and just scrolling through a post or two before closing the apps, just to do it again a few moments later. These apps are unfortunately a part of running my business, though I do wish I could live without them. I’d love to step away from that for a bit and just travel and backpack with some rolls of film and a phone that only makes calls in case of emergencies. I think it’d cleanse my anxious mind a bit and bring me back to the intentionality of only having one shot before the moment is gone and you have to wind your film up, and to the excitement of having it live in your mind until the roll is developed.
See Shelby’s work at https://www.shelbyphillipsphotography.com/.