University of Minnesota Alumni Association


Saddle Up

Shelley Paulson uses an artist's eye to photograph horses. Her editorial and commercial clients rely on her to help them tell their stories.

Photo by Alyssa Smolen

Click* Here's a snapshot of Shelley Gray Paulson (B.A. ’92) as a child in Oakdale, Minnesota, playing with her latest Breyer model toy horse.

*Click* That’s the family on vacation in Colorado, with her father Lee shooting photos of his daughters on mountain trail rides. 

*Click* There’s Shelley as a teen taking part in summer riding events.

That Paulson has become a successful multiplatform equine photographer and educator wouldn’t surprise anyone flipping through the family album. However, it might surprise fellow Gophers who remember Paulson as majoring in vocal performance and daydreaming of a career in opera during her time at the U of M.

“As a child, I could never have dreamed that both my personal and professional life would revolve around horses,” says Paulson.

Her commercial work for some of the best-known equine companies shows her passion, and you can almost hear the clatter of hooves: One photo shows a mounted cowboy and his dog rounding up a herd of cattle, beams of sunlight filtering at an angle through dust and pine branches. Another captures four horses trotting through snow, throwing dark blue shadows onto the white—their shadows more recognizable as horse shapes than the bodies themselves from above. Yet another details a black calf throwing up clumps of dirt, determined to escape as a quarter horse and rider pound in close.

Commercial and editorial equine photography is now about 60 percent of Paulson's business-- including work for high profile advertising agencies and brands.
Photo by Shelley Gray Paulson

How Paulson got here is something of a winding road. After college and a brief stint performing church music, Paulson took a job at Kinko’s, showing customers how to use the then-new Macintosh computers. She taught herself HTML, and billed herself as a web designer—“a new skill then, when the web was starting to get an interface.” She eventually moved on to join an ad agency, and in 2001, started her own graphic design business. It was a key move: She learned to run a small business, and most importantly, bought her first camera to take pictures for an annual calendar.

Photo by Shelley Gray Paulson

Photography caught her attention. Her next camera was the first Canon Rebel, which was digital. “I could see right away what I was doing,” Paulson says, “and was also able to cover up any mistakes better.” She eventually moved into high-end wedding photography and did that for 13 years. Looking back, she’s grateful that the skills she developed as a wedding photographer translated seamlessly to equine photography: lighting any situation, keeping subjects calm, shooting in difficult or awkward conditions.

In 2013, though, a fall on wet concrete resulted in a traumatic brain injury for Paulson. The pressures of her high-stress wedding work both aggravated symptoms and delayed her recovery.

Something had to change. Weddings were lucrative, but horses took less time to photograph, didn’t object to rescheduling, and were generally less stressed (and stressful) than wedding partiers. “It was a leap of faith, because horses weren’t a big enough part of my business [then],” Paulson says. “But it’s amazing, when you focus on a single thing, how quickly that grows.”

In fact, the business became three-dimensional. Commercial and editorial equine photography is now about 60 percent of her business—including work for high profile advertising agencies and brands, from Mane ‘n Tail to Triple Crown to Farnam and Nutrena. Paulson has also won numerous awards for her equine photography, and a homegrown stock library is part of the package.

In 2017, Amherst Media approached her to create a book. “You won’t make a lot of money, but it’s a hell of a calling card,” she recalls a rep saying. Paulson and Amherst selected photos, and she wrote captions— “fun facts or how I captured the images.” The result, Horses: Portraits and Stories, won first place in its class in American Horse Publications’ 2019 Equine Media Awards.

Paulson also pursues mentoring, coaching, and online workshops for up-and-coming photographers and videographers. These are more about the passion of teaching than income, she says, but there’s a practical angle as well: Minnesota’s winter climate isn’t the most favorable for outdoor shoots, and education allows for year-round cash flow.

Now living on a five-acre Minnesota “hobby farm” that she and her husband bought in 2015, Paulson joyfully cares for three horses and continues with weekly riding lessons in summer—now in English style as well as the Western style she grew up with—which also informs her work. “If all I know is Western, with barrel racing and pole weaving, I might show up to a shoot and they have jumping and dressage [a more formal style],” she explains. “I need to know what the peak moment or the right movement is to be able to capture that for the client.”

Every experience ends up useful somehow. “Having been a tech person and a graphic designer means I can be a one-woman show,” Paulson says. “And I can sing you a song, too!”

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