By Katie Navarra
Barry Koster’s career as an artist could have been over before it even began. An elementary school teacher nearly failed him because he had “poor art skills.” Not willing to accept this fate for her son, Barry’s mother marched into a store and purchased a pad of paper and pastels – determined to improve Barry’s skills.
“She [regularly] dropped me off at the museum and I would stay for hours and draw pictures of statues,” he said.
Little did that elementary school teacher know, her criticism would ignite a lifelong passion and a professional career for her young student.
Throughout his youth, Barry developed his skills as an artist, spending much of his time drawing and painting. On his 10th birthday, his cousin gave him a camera, inspiring a passion for photography. “It floored me because, until then, I had never been treated like an adult and this made me feel like an adult,” he said.
Every surface had potential as a canvas. He once removed the glass door from his mother’s shower, placed a perfume bottle on it and photographed the display. He later used the piece during an interview with Avon cosmetics and was hired on the spot.
The Evolution of Photography
As an adult, Barry worked as a commercial photographer and shot portraits for global companies including JCPenny, Montgomery Ward, J. Walter Thompson Ad Agency and several others.
Being a commercial photographer was a challenging, stressful job. Before the digital age, photographs were shot in large format film, demanding precision and massive equipment. Each size photograph required a specialized camera designed to shoot photos of the selected size.
“It took two people to move the cameras and you needed a tripod to hold it up,” he reminisced. “Each photograph was carefully calculated and if the image did not come out well, the shot had to be taken again.”
He continued, “That is where I really developed my eye. I learned to be a professional photographer on the job doing work for the biggest companies in the world.”
As photography evolved and the 35mm camera was released, Barry remembers thinking, “How am I going to take 36 pictures? A few decades later, the digital age emerged allowing photographers to take thousands of photos in one day.”
“Going from that (large format film) to digital and having the ability to correct the image, [photography] is a piece of cake,” he said. “If something was wrong with the photo back then, I had to reshoot it. Now in Photoshop, I can click, click and it’s fixed.”
A Starving Artist
Horses became the focal point of Barry’s work when he and his wife, Laura, moved into their current home, a seven-acre farm in Aiken, South Carolina. They needed a revenue source to support Laura’s passion for rescue animals.
“We call my wife, Laura, rescue ranger,” he said. “If there is a dog [or horse] in trouble or in danger of being put down, we take it in. She regularly volunteers at and supports Danny & Ron’s Rescue and the Equine Rescue of Aiken.”
With 11 rescue dogs and a barn full of horses, “the feed bill was getting ridiculous.” To offset the expense of rescuing the animals, they started a small business out of the house.
Barry began drawing and painting horses and scenes depicting the equestrian life and selling the artwork on eBay. “I take pictures or images of foxhunting I like, I do a painting and put them on eBay,” he said. “I’ve sold thousands of dollars of work on eBay to people all over the world.”
The duo also capitalized on the growing popularity of digital photography. Expecting that virtually everyone would become a self-proclaimed photographer and would be searching for ways to create high quality reproductions of their images to display in their homes, Barry and Laura opened a photo canvas business.
“There are more iPhone cameras than all other cameras combined, or some crazy statistic like that,” he said. “If we offered the service to print people’s pictures, I thought it would be a great business for the future.”
What neither of them expected was that clients would rather hire Barry to take the photo and produce it on canvas rather than use a photo they had taken themselves. “The canvas is a great supplement, but it actually gained me more photography work,” he said.
The canvas business catapulted Barry’s career of shooting equine events from hunters and jumpers, foxhunts to three-day events, carriage driving competitions and private photo shoots.
His talents as an artist are well appreciated in Aiken, a community known for its equestrians and dog lovers.
Word of Barry’s talents spread quickly through the region and he has been hired for private commission paintings from several clients. His work is displayed at local shops and is available at Equine Divine and Aiken Dry Goods.
Laura is also getting involved with the photography business. As a former jumper, who trained with Harry de Leyer and Pablo Gamboa, she has a natural instinct for timing each shot perfectly. “She has great timing and knows how a horse is supposed to look and she is learning the technical side of the camera,” he said.
Every artist has a critic
But while Barry may have a massive fan base, he is not without doubters. Oddly enough, one of Barry’s critics is his own son.
One day Barry and his son were having a conversation about his artwork. “We were discussing how good or not so good of an artist I am,” he laughed. “I told him, I bet I can do a picture of a horse’s ass and sell it.”
Excited by the challenge, he went out and shot a photo of an Appaloosa’s rump. Then, he went home and did a painting from the photo. He offered it for sale on eBay. “It sold instantly!” he said.
The rapid sale settled the debate. “I see beauty in everything,” he said. “Being able to capture it and impact someone is so satisfying.”
For more information or to see additional samples of Barry’s work, visit his website www.barrykosterphotography.com or call his studio at (803) 955-7170.
About the writer: Katie Navarra has worked as a freelance writer in the horse industry for 12 years. She has been a lifelong horse lover and recently purchased a Quarter Horse mare with hopes of re-entering the show world in 2014.