By Martha Handler
I’ve learned over the years that you can’t judge a book by its cover anymore than you can judge a person by his, or her, appearance. Everyone has a backstory.
Take for instance my neighbor Lisa Martinez Cohen. She’s a young, petite, pretty, well-put-together Westchester mother with ethereal green eyes and a serene manner. But if you delve a bit deeper, you’ll discover there’s a whole lot more to her than meets the eye.
We initially bonded over our love of our Weimaraners, which we both enjoyed walking (showing off) around our neighborhood. They were just pups when we first met, though mine has since passed and Lisa’s is (literally) on his last legs, so more recently our discussions have centered around grief and trying to figure out when to let go. (Lisa’s friends joke that her dog is starting to resemble Frankenweenie). Though our roadside discussions were usually brief, I felt she was a kindred soul and so I recently reached out to her, hoping we could deepen our connection. Lisa accepted my invitation, but explained it would have to wait until she returned from her annual trek to Colorado to photograph horses. My ears quickly pricked as I, too, had spent years living in and around the same town in Colorado (Craig), where I’d owned my first and only horse.
When she returned, Lisa posted photographs on Facebook and when I viewed them I was blown away. Her genuine love and admiration for the equine was exquisitely expressed. Over lunch, I learned more about the fascinating woman behind the lens, who would gladly pass up a get-together with friends to spend the day with her camera and models that weigh more than half a ton and that when galloping, can inadvertently trample you in mere seconds.
Lisa’s mother and Czechoslovakian grandmother raised her in New Rochelle. She credits her grandmother, a photographer who became a factory worker after immigrating here, for being her “hero and inspiration” and (belatedly) encouraging her to delve into photography.
Her love affair with horses was sparked when she began taking riding lessons as a teenager, but her love of photography started much earlier.
“My fascination with photography stems from a desire to observe and make sense of my surroundings,” she told me. “My dream was to become a photographer for National Geographic and travel the world. But growing up as the daughter/granddaughter of extremely hardworking first- and second-generation immigrants, it was made abundantly clear that a serious profession was much more acceptable than trotting around the globe with my camera.”
After graduating from American University, where she’d been a rather “serious and straitlaced” student, Lisa made the uncharacteristic decision to move to Colorado. The West instantly won her heart.
“The air, the landscape and its iconic cowboys made me feel I was ‘home’ and I longed to stay forever.”
But her more pragmatic side eventually won out, and after one year she moved back East to attend law school at Boston College.
Over the years, Lisa’s love of photography never wavered and then, a serendipitous legal case allowed her passion to meld with her profession. While working as a lawyer, she was assigned the job of vetting the rights to one of the most historically significant photo archives in the world.
“I had the privilege of working with original images taken by the iconic photographers of our time, including two of my favorites – Elliott Erwitt and Henri Cartier-Bresson. It was this experience that trained my eye as a photographer.”
After her second child was born, Lisa returned to the saddle, this time with camera in hand. She was particularly interested in horses with a story (rescues, damaged horses, therapy horses or just plain working horses), because they’re such “strong and resilient” creatures. It was only a matter of time before she joined the Great American Horse Drive. By special invitation, photographers from around the world join cowboys and cowgirls in Colorado as they drive 800 or so ranch horses from their overwintering location to the main ranch, a distance of 50 miles.
“These horses are a combination of breeds and when the herd is moving, you see a rainbow of colors flowing by. It’s truly breathtaking.”
The horses spend their winters fending for themselves in extreme conditions on Bureau of Land Management property before being rounded up, shod and sent back out to work as trail or carriage horses, or for use on hunting trips.
“I think of them as the American working-class horse. Much like the American working class, they put in long hours, protect their loved ones, strive for comfort, and keep looking forward. I’m particularly drawn to their grace and elegance in the face of adversity.”
Lisa, like many others, believes horses reflect our souls.
“Because horses are prey animals, they’re deeply attuned to our feelings (as predators). Our feelings are translated to horses through the energy frequencies we emit, and this allows them to mirror the images they receive back to us.”
In other words, openhearted communication between horse and human has the potential to promote self-healing – if you’re paying attention and are ready to be cracked open.
Lisa’s work has been featured at art shows and galleries around northern Westchester. To view and purchase her magnificent photos, visit silvermountainstudio.com.