Making a living from a passion is dream for most of us, but for horse photographer Malcolm Snelgrove Dartmoor has proved a healing place as well as a way of life
When it comes to Dartmoor, horse photographer Malcolm Snelgrove speaks of Devon’s wildest terrain like an old romantic and his latest collection of photographs of its indigenous wild ponies seems to reflect both this romance and the majesty of a landscape that he so reveres and respects.
He says: “I love Dartmoor because it gives you such peace and tranquility but it also challenges you as well. And its open for everyone, from the people who want to push their own barriers to those who might be less mobile. It’s astounding what you find on Dartmoor and there is so much diversity, offering outstanding beauty for a photographer.
”Every part has its own appeal, and the differences between the landscapes in the north, south, east and west give a huge opportunity for artists and photographers to maximise this and the varying light.”
Malcolm’s very first walk there was as a child about 45 years ago and from that moment on, he knew it was where he wanted to live. It wasn’t until 2017 that he moved with his wife Juliette to Poundsgate, having lived at Hatherleigh since 1989, and now his front garden is like an artist’s canvas, with far reaching views across the moors, except this a living breathing landscape that inspires him daily.
He says: “It has always been our ambition to live on Dartmoor, and for us to live at Poundsgate is fantastic. Juliette has her own horse and her access to the moors in incredible. From our kitchen you can see Buckland Beacon and the Ten Commandments and the trees up to the tor are all varieties from deciduous to evergreen, and their colours are constantly changing. We have the River Dart on one side and the River Webburn on the other and the mist and fog can lay in the valley with the tor above the clouds.
“The light on this side of Dartmoor is just stunning and has a fantastic filtration to it, at any time of day. The sun will cast different shadows – at sunrise it can be a burning hot orange, and then it will burn through to glorious blue skies and in the evening the sun will light up the tor. It’s so stunning, whatever the time day.”
For Malcolm, from talking about the moors, walking it, reading about it, 30 years ago he first started taking photographs of it, exploring the landscape, and capturing images of the ponies that live there.
“I was taking landscape photographs but I wanted to show the animals and wildlife living in their natural environment,” he says. “An American photograph called Thomas Mangelson was taking extraordinary close up images of wild animals and this really inspired me to take images of the ponies in their natural environment,” he says.
As Malcolm’s love of photography grew he decided to combine work as a consultant in the IT world with photography and in 2007 started to shoot commercially. He quickly established himself as a lifestyle photographer, with commissions ranging from outdoor adventure specialists to well known clothing brands. He is an ambassador for Visit Dartmoor and his photography workshops bring delegates from all over the world.
But a stroke in December 2017, aged just 50, caused him to re-think everything. He says: “I went from being perfectly fine to being collapsed on the floor, unable to move or speak. I couldn’t use my right hand or arm and was wobbly on my right leg. Having a stroke turns your life upside down in an instant and one of the scariest experience of my life. Thankfully, I am one of the lucky ones who is recovering well, with my speech and loss of movement in my right side returned. I feel so lucky that I was given a second chance at life.”
To help his recovery, he spent hours quietly exploring the moors further, taking his time and often sitting to rest his body as he acquainted it again with daily tasks, coaxing it to behave as it did before the stroke and re-learning how to take photographs. During those quiet, contemplative times, he came across individual herds of ponies, that lived far from the usual honeypots beside the roads and car parks, and were less inclined to make friends in return for a snack, living more naturally.
Far from those visitor hotspots, Malcolm hiked tor topped mini mountains, boulder strewn river banks flanked by trees and foliage that change colours through the seasons and bleak swathes of moorland, blanketed in parched-looking Melina grasses.
It’s a landscape he says that is entrenched in local myths and legends and it is alive with tales that dwell on moorland that is peppered with neolithic standing stones, lonely ruins and bronze age hut circles, against a stunning backdrop that’s ripe for photography.
It was these hours he spent on the moors often among the herds that inspired his latest collection of photographs and prompted him to hone down his offering, and just concentrate on fine art horse photography, using Dartmoor as a backdrop as an option.
“I had to really slow down, as I was working as an IT consultant and developing the photography side of the business, dipping into film work too,” he says. “Those long hours on Dartmoor really helped me to refocus. Spending so much time among the herds meant I could understand their individual characters and how they behaved with each other and in the changing weather. And as the ponies started to accept me, basically ignoring me, the images I was able to capture became more extraordinary too,” he says.
His latest collection has been printed onto 3mm metal, a revolutionary technique that is relatively new to the UK, giving them a depth that is mesmerising, and allowing them to be all weather so they can adorn a garden as well as interior walls.
Dartmoor’s magical, eerie and sometimes frightening landscape seems to envelop and almost talk to you, he says, and his images seem to speak too, as if they are urging you walk in and share that same view with the ponies or whatever the subject might be.
A visit to his gallery space at Badgers Holt at Dartmeet is beguiling. This is fine art photography at its very best. Huge images line the walls that have an exceptionally high resolution and the detail is incredible. They are vibrant with life, making you eager to go and explore those same views and wish that just one of them could be hanging in your own living room.
Malcolm will continue to focus on Dartmoor and its ponies, encouraging people to take up his workshops and discover those off the beaten track places while honing their skills. He’ll also offer fine art commissions when people will be able to come to Dartmoor with their horse and ride across the moors so that he can photograph them in a stunning landscape.
“Fine art commissions don’t have to be on Dartmoor, but the key is a great backdrop. I’d also like to replicate taking images of the herds around the world, seeing ponies and horses in their natural environments,” he says.
While suffering a stroke may have slowed him down, his thirst for adventure, and his eye for a great photograph hasn’t, and judging by the popularity of his Facebook posts of the ponies, people around the world agree too.
Malcolm has a passion for conservation and rewilding of the landscape and supports charities and organisations that are focussed on protecting the environment.
Visit the Riverside Gallery at Badgers Holt, Dartmeet to view Malcolm’s photographs or go on line www.malcolmsnelgrove.com