Black Horse Studio: Innovation and the Art of Photography

7 minute read

It’s snowing at home in cozy Winston-Salem. But Lee Runion and Jennifer Bostic could care less: they are on a 50-foot yacht floating in the Gulf of Mexico, right off the coast of sunny Florida. The weather couldn’t be better, and the view isn’t bad either.

The water glistens, the sun warms their faces and a sea of beautiful people surrounds them—men and women decked out in high-end designer clothes, casually sipping on drinks and sporting good looks…for the camera that is.

For the pair, this isn’t an elaborate vacation—it’s work.

Lee and Jennifer are the owners of Black Horse Studio, a commercial photography firm located in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter.

Though you may not know Jennifer and Lee, you may be familiar with their work for clients such as Tyson Foods, Lenovo, Krispy Kreme, Ralph Lauren, Hanes, Volvo Truck and Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center.

And if you don’t know their work, you may recognize their building: the somewhat medieval-looking redbrick castle that is Nissen Wagon Works, situated kitty-corner from Krankies Coffee in the Innovation Quarter.

Mirrored by their choice of studio, Lee and Jennifer’s approach to their work is unconventional, creative and more than a little quirky.

Working Within the Box

The owners of Black Horse satisfy all your hopes for creative photographer-types. Their studio contains all the latest technology that modern photographers use, while also boasting the accoutrements of antique processes—such as tintype—resurrected from a by-gone photographic era. The double dog-owning, costume party-throwing pair have a love for the historic and a whimsical eye that makes them and their space as surprising as the cloaked skeleton waiting for you in a corner of second floor (remnants of a Halloween party that never got put away).

If you ask Jennifer and Lee, the term “innovation” means creative problem-solving, thinking outside of the box.

“Innovation is pushing the bounds of who you are. It’s not recreating a photograph, but coming up with something new,” says Lee as he sits in the studio’s living room on the main floor of the Nissen Wagon Works building. The sitting area is surrounded by wooden beams and exposed brick and hardwood floors that echo the building’s earlier purposes as a wagon showroom.

This definition has an element of irony. Despite the occasional trip to the Gulf of Mexico, most of their job as commercial photographers requires them to work within a box.

“Working in advertising…it’s different,” adds Jennifer, pausing to gently correct their two dogs, who are taking advantage of the wide-open ground floor to play just a little too loudly. She resumes. “Compared to fine art and journalism photography, advertising is a different kind of world.”

For example, there are limitations in commercial photography; budget, time restraints and creative direction—among other things—restrict what photographers can do on a project. The client provides parameters, and Lee and Jennifer work within those limits to create something unique and innovative.

“You’ve got to solve the creative problem within the box that the client makes for you,” says Lee. “But the box is more of a challenge than a limitation. That’s the part that we enjoy.”

“It’s a collaborative effort,” Jennifer says, “But it’s so important. You’re helping people bring their brand to life.”

At Black Horse, Jennifer and Lee take their definition of innovation and put it to work for their clients.

Reimagining the Box

Lee and Jennifer took the same approach to innovation when creating their studio.

Outside, the Nissen Wagon Works building is iconic. The three-story castle, complete with a redbrick turret and emblazoned with the name of its original owner, S. J. Nissen, is a well-known landmark in Winston-Salem.

Though the building was originally a wagon showroom and repair shop, the space had been used for many other things.  When Lee bought it in 2005, it had most recently been a government building and was full of ugly subfloors, added drop ceilings and cubicles.

The physical structure was another box that Jennifer and Lee re-imagined. Lee purchased the wagon works building partly due to its historic flair; he wanted to recall its historic roots.

By stripping out all the office trapping, they got back to the original beams and brick, turning the building into a studio where they shoot both motion and still photography for clients in food, lifestyle, conceptual beauty and portrait.

On the ground floor, there’s a large space with white screens for photo shoots, and the building has two kitchens that are used as sets for food photography. Much of the rest of the floors have open spaces where they can build the sets they need for individual projects.

Many rooms of the studio are populated with shelves upon shelves stacked with dishes, utensils, cheeseboards, serving bowls and cutting boards that find their way into photo shoots. Other spaces are full of an assortment of tables, chairs, mirrors and, once in a while, a displaced mannequin.

Rather than the literal black box that many photographers use, Lee and Jennifer choose to use the multi-storied, window-filled historic space to create texture and visual interest in their work.

An Unconventional Attitude

But more than their studio, what truly sets Black Horse Studio apart from other commercial photography firms is Jennifer and Lee’s attitude toward their work.

“We try to have fun on every shoot,” says Jennifer, “no matter what we’re doing.”

This perspective distinguishes them from many other studios. If you ask their clients, many can tell you horror stories of photo shoots characterized by stress and anger.

“Photo shoots can get pretty tense,” Lee says.

Jennifer adds, “Advertising can be stressful. But people like working with us because we’re laid back, and we can get things done well at the same time.”

The way they designed their space provides a concierge vibe. The shoot spaces are scattered with sitting areas: open spaces with couches and chairs, rugs and coffee tables, where models and clients (as well as Lee and Jennifer and their two dogs) can hang out during long shoots, an unconventional experience in commercial photography.

Clients repeatedly come back to Black Horse because of this approach to their craft. It’s not unusual for the photographers of Black Horse to also take their show on the road. Lee and Jennifer love to travel for their job and have held shoots in London, Italy and the Caribbean, as well as traveling extensively in the United States. 

A Place in the Innovation Quarter

Lee and Jennifer have been residents of the Innovation Quarter since before it was even named as such. They’ve watched its growth from a unique perspective—from within.

These two self-proclaimed history buffs have enjoyed a front-row seat to history happening right outside their doors. They remember what the area was like before redevelopment started and have been pleased with the addition of each new part of the Innovation Quarter, particularly the green space of Bailey Park.

“We like that they are renovating the old buildings and keeping the history of them, instead of just demolishing them and starting over,” says Jennifer.

“The buildings are beautiful,” Lee agrees. “This area has really been turned around.”

In a way, Lee and Jennifer’s approach to photography mirrors the transformation of the former tobacco district—taking on new projects and working within specific confines to create unique images that help tell a larger story.

by Jessica Brown