Horse People: Kate Houlihan Beach and barn share lens time for professional photographer.
Written by Kim F. Miller
Sunday, 14 September 2014 02:17
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As is the case with many artistic types, the signature Kate Houlihan puts on her photographs and paintings is a little hard to make out. But her gifts and her style are not. Kate's images of horses, beach scenes and people capitalize on natural light, intimacy with and affection for the subject and capture the heart of the matter and the moment.

Kate's equestrian photography is informed by a life with horses. She began riding as a child in Northern California's Woodside, where she followed in the bootprints of her mom, Maureen Dooher Ryan, an accomplished student of Barbara Worth. Kate continued with the sport on and off while earning her professional chops as a commercial photographer and, later, the owner of a successful stock photography agency. She now rides and occasionally competes on the hunter/jumper circuit under the tutelage of Nicole Kane in Huntington Beach.

She's also the busy mom of two teenagers and is working on the third in a series of coffee table photography books spotlighting California beach communities. These photo essays began in 2011 with Finding Newport Beach, featuring scenes from her own beloved backyard.

Kate set her junior riding career aside when she received a scholarship to pursue fine art studies at the University of Oregon. Upon graduation, she landed a position (re-filing slides) with renowned photographer David Stoecklein in Sun Valley, ID. She sought the post to get a taste of professional photography and quickly decided it was the right career path.

One of Canon's "Explorers of Light," Stoecklein is known as the "photographer of the American West." His work is synonymous with commercial images reflecting the region's outdoor lifestyle, nature and people.

Nike, Anheuser Busch and Chevy were among Stoecklein's corporate clients during Kate's tenure with him. "We shot all over the place," she recalls. "I had always been into photography and working for him kind of fine-tuned everything for me as a career path. And he was always very generous in helping us."

Kate's next professional step was partnering with a friend to create their own stock photography agency. She later sold that to a company in Santa Monica, then moved to Southern California as part of the deal. Along the way, she'd met and married her husband, Jay, who lived in Newport Beach.

She rode a little while living in Sun Valley, then started back to the sport in earnest after settling in Newport Beach. "That's when my husband had this 'dumb' idea that I should join a barn so I could meet people," Kate recalls. She says "dumb" affectionately. In truth, becoming re-immersed in the horse world has been heavenly. "It's my thing that makes me happy," she explains. She first rode with Hillary Ridland (Mayfield at the time) at the Orange County Fairgrounds, competing frequently and doing especially well on the medal circuit. She considered hanging up her irons a few years ago when the time came to retire her "wonderful" hunter, Bo Frost.

Around that time, friend and fellow amateur rider Heidi Kane encouraged Kate to visit the new training barn run by her daughter, Nicole: South Shore Stables at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center. That's where she met her next wonderful horse, the well-bred and well-known hunter Lexus. "He's so awesome I ended up buying him and I just love him."

Riding and competing take a back seat to motherhood and photography commissions and projects, but Kate typically gets to the barn three times a week. She occasionally slips in a show—especially the nice competitions now held at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center.

Kate loves being in the horse show scene, and typically has her camera with her at every step.

When longtime friend and Blenheim EquiSports partner Robert Ridland got a glimpse of Kate's work, her images began showing up in the show management company's programs and marketing materials. Their use marked a shift from traditional action photography to more artsy perspectives.

Her image of two horses nuzzling each other, under the tagline "The "Quest" in Equestrian" anchors an evocative advertising piece. Close-ups transform ordinary details of equestrian life into charming stories: the dog awaiting its owner on the golf cart's front seat, sunshine riffling through ribbons on a tackroom awning, and the hindquarters and impeccably braided tail of a white horse heading into a black background.

She enjoys equestrian assignments, but spends most of her professional time with people portraits and, increasingly, working on her forthcoming book, Finding Huntington Beach. The ocean and beach culture rival horses for Kate's affections as a photographer. "Surfing is kind of like riding to me," she explains. "You're free and by yourself and peaceful."

Riding and surfing are also similar as activities that few can manage to do every day. And therein lies perhaps the greatest value of Kate's work: reminding us the pleasures and possibilities both offer.

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