Carousel Costumes

Celebrate the Inner Horse

By Judy Eftekhar

“Why not dress up real live horses like carousel horses and take pictures of them?” Janice Fischer asked herself. The answer was clear: “Why not?!” And so she did, turning the idea into striking, full color calendars of living horses all decked out to resemble the costumed steeds that entice children of all ages to take fantasy merry-go-round rides.

The Grayslake photographer and, of course, horse owner just completed her 2011 Carousel Horses calendar. Last year’s first limited edition drew rave reviews from boarders at Jill McCrae’s dressage training barn nearby, where the equine subjects reside and the photo shoots took place. Janice also makes custom jewelry such as necklaces, belt buckles and bracelets, as well as postcards and paperweights from the images used for the calendars.

“When I visited Circus World in Baraboo, Wisconsin, and the Ringling Brothers museum in Sarasota, Florida, I was struck by the beauty of a bygone era. Then, carousels were more important as popular entertainment than they are today,” says Janice.

The idea of photographing real, costumed horses evolved over time, fueled by a chance encounter with author Tobin Fraley, and the purchase of his book Carousel Animals, Artistry in Motion, at a shop in Long Grove. Carousels, or merry-go-rounds, of originally wooden horses and other animals, costumed and intricately carved by European master craftsmen, were beloved attractions at circuses, carnivals and amusement parks like Chicago’s Riverview, now closed.

“Carousel horses have a huge appeal to many people. I still remember the particular ones I wanted to ride as a kid. Though motionless, those horses looked almost alive.

“My vision is to let the living horse’s personality come through in costume, then capture the energy and motion in a photographic still life,” Janice explains.

The first challenge was to find the right horses. A mutual friend had introduced Jill, who keeps designer chickens with extravagant top-knots, to Janice, who needed interesting fowls for a jewelry series. Using McCrae Farm for the calendar was a natural progression because the horses were used to dressing up for musical performances.

The next challenge was to create costumes that match the horse and the calendar month. She relied on her intuition of each horse’s character and spirit, as well as what kind of rider might be drawn to a particular horse in a real carousel. A swaggery fellow might want a Western steed with lasso and pistol. A gleaming white horse draped in flowers and ribbons might delight a little girl who wants to be carried like a princess.

Some outfits replicate the intricate Baroque-style wood carvings of the master craftsmen and the dazzling finery of the circus. Flowers, ribbons, lace, and satiny or gauze-like drapes and glitter delight and entrance on just the right horse. Several costumes suggest cultural or historic themes, such as military stars and gold epaulet-like fringe; sparkly Western show horse “bling-bling”; and feathers, animal pelts, and bow and arrow for a Native American look. Janice originates the ideas and makes the costumes herself, except for this year’s cover horse garb, tournament wear for a gallant knight in arms, which was created by Grayslake decorative artist Joan Schultz.

Janice credits two- and three-dimensional design classes in art school, as well as her own vision, in helping to achieve the looks she aims for. “I drew on some of that schooling to create the calendar set this year. It is brighter and more elaborate, with more depth and gold and silver glitter to resemble a canopy of lights and other images that place the horse right on an old-time carousel,” she says.

Janice grew up in Batavia and attended photography and art programs in Chicago at the School of the Art Institute and Columbia College. Part-time jobs included photo assistant and horse carriage driver. Following a brief foray into the world of real estate and insurance, she returned to her first, and continuing, loves of animals and photography. Recent efforts include a line of photo-based animal gift items sold in Chicago-area retail stores. She also specializes in custom portraiture of animals, mostly dogs, cats, and horses and their owners. She lives on with her husband Peter where she keeps German shepherd dogs, cats, chickens and her horse Ruby, a 13-year-old Belgian/Paint cross.

“I try to make photos capture memories and feelings, so it is more than dressing up and doing generic shots. With the calendar, I wanted the horses to feel beautiful and express themselves,” says Janice.

Getting each horse to trot, canter, even rear on cue—that is, to express itself at just the right moment—presented its own special challenges.

“Working with a professional trainer was critical. Jill tunes right in to the horse and knows how to direct its energy,” says Janice. For many shots Jill lunged the horse just out of camera range. Janice snapped the shutter as the horse passed the prop pole a carousel rider would grasp. The lunge line was later removed electronically.

A few mishaps occurred along the way. When costumes were hung only on one side, the weight pulled them off, so now horses are dressed all around. Shooting last year’s calendar in natural light outdoors fell through when wind blew sets and costumes and spooked the horses, so they moved indoors. A new camera produced better color and detail, even unwelcome ones, like cat paw prints, wrinkles in the backdrop, and the occasional fish wire and safety pins.

“The horses really engaged in the process, loved dressing up and showing off. But one young stallion was pretty rambunctious. He got lectured about good behavior choices, or he would be bounced from the calendar. He listened up, and we got a great, dynamic pose. So good, in fact, that he started the year out as the pin-up boy for January,” Janice says.

Reprinted with permission from “The Sentinel” November/December 2010