The Horses, by Neal Brown

There is a fashion photography tradition, proved by more images than there are atoms in the universe, which shows a beautiful model, usually female, in some kind of moody and erotic proximity to a horse. It can be argued that, in Gareth McConnell’s series The Horses, beautiful female models have been made conspicuous by their absence. It’s as if the models are nearby, but off camera – as uncelebrated as the inevitable horse excrement that always accompanies anything equine.

The beautiful models, and the symbolism of their proximity, is a remaining constant of our ancient human-animal interaction with horses, persisting after modern technology ceased our exploitation of equines for war, travel, and agriculture. The meaning of the proximity is usually gender based, and the symbolism is often erotic – a mythos of human and animal divinities. If female, the relationship with the horse may be both a dominating and subjected one; the model is usually a fecund goddess of peak reproductive age who, in combination with a horse, exemplifies ideas of hyphenating beauty, sexuality, and species identity. If the model is male, the association may be more about virile dominance on a spectrum of dubious male heroism. Importantly, whether male or female, the relationship is an exemplar of the absoluteness and terror of human power over non-human life.

McConnell has employed bold craft skills to make this series, which, by excluding models – humans – redistributes some species power. (McConnell has strong themes of misfit, misplaced, and outsider groups in his work.) He shines improbably glorious, cosmic lights on the horses, using colours like those associated with transformative mood experiences such as music and dance, drug use, or the bright sunlight that falls through the stained-glass window of cathedrals.

McConnell addresses ideas of separation caused, mostly, by human intervention. On occasion a horse is seen in what looks an understated indoor studio context, standing on stock floor coverings and before backdrops, unsaddled, and unbridled. The visual analogy with a beautiful human is striking – lights and shadows and colours are arranged to exquisite perfection, as they would be for a model in a sumptuous advertisement, the object of which is to persuade ownership.

With this series McConnell has launched the equivalent of a trillion-dollar campaign for extreme luxury goods, whose intention is not ownership, but to rewild. lt is an irony, of course, and part of our disgrace, that active human intervention for re-wilding is so necessary. Although McConnell’s campaign originates in the trans-hyphenating mythologies of Pegasus, unicorns, and centaurs, his target is prioritising the primary animal. In this way he gives value to what he says is a more ‘spiritual, expressive sphere,’ returning to horses their mystical absoluteness.