Chatting with the Red Dragon
Updated: Apr 17, 2020
I first caught sight of the Red Dragon in the middle of Prague, on the busy promenade which lines the river Vitava. She was crouched, sketching something in the dust with her finger, another young woman watching intently. Oblivious to the crowds skirting around her, she was causing a bit of congestion, a mini-stir. Curious, I thought and went on my way. In Prague for the Diplomats Cup I hadn't realized that the young woman I had just seen was there for the polo too. She was Kathrin Gralla, aka The Red Dragon, polo player and polo photographer.
We were introduced officially at the field that afternoon and since then I've met up with Kathrin at various tournaments during the polo season. Always immersed in her work, darting from side-lines to goal posts, from pony-lines to hospitality tent, from throw-ins to prize-giving, she seldom has time to chat. But now, with both of us in lockdown due to Covid-19, I could catch up with her on FaceTime to find out more about the female photographer behind the fascinating name the Red Dragon.
Honestly, The Red Dragon is just such a super cool name! How did you come up with it?
It was a result of my strong connection with China. I'd just come back from living and working there and needed a name for my new company. I thought, well, red is THE lucky color in China and the dragon is THE strongest animal - put them together and you get a great company name. My company is now registered under Der Rote Drache.
What's your background, Kathrin, and how did you get into photography?
I've been running around with a camera since childhood, but realised I had tons of photos that I was doing nothing with. I had to decide - either stop taking photos or do something. I did something, establishing my company 11 years ago. While I have a Masters in Marketing and Psychology, I wanted to show my clients I was serious about photography and got my qualification from the New York Institute of Photography.
What attracted you to polo photography?
Well, this was a coincidental but pivotal moment in my life. I was busy setting up an exhibition as a tribute to my uncle, a writer whose books were burned by the Nazis and who was sent to a concentration camp. He once said "If you speak the truth, settle your horse first". To illustrate this I needed a horse to gallop as close to me as possible while I took shots of the leg-action. The horse provided was a polo pony and the owner was working for the Fürstenbergs with their polo club in the castle grounds of Donaueschingen.
They liked my work and have since invited me regularly as their tournament photographer, giving me the opportunity to learn and develop. On then meeting Morgan van Overbroek, I was encouraged to visit Polo Park Zurich and cover their tournaments. I'd also taken the step and had started to play polo myself.
Now, as a player, do you think this gives you an advantage when photographing the sport?
Yes, definitely. Looking back through my work over the years I can see the difference. I know exactly how the player feels before, after and during the game. This helps to get really expressive shots, to know which position portrays the pony perfectly, when an infringement has been committed which I can then retouch so that you get the action minus the infringement. And the players accept me more. They know I care about my ponies and the game. I'm part of the group, the polo family.
What's the biggest challenge in achieving the perfect polo photo?
Hmmm, well..... at first it was really difficult to predict the right moment to shoot, to imagine what might happen next, but now it's automatic. It just flows as I dive into pure polo passion. Crouching behind the goal posts you first feel the ground shaking, then hear the frantic beat of the horses hooves, then the shouts of the players - goose bump material.
Obviously getting players' portraits is part of your work. Can this be difficult, expressing a personality in a photo?
Not any more. I now know a lot of the players. When we meet up they're relaxed, laughing and kidding around. It's just meeting up with friends again. I know the way they play and work so it's not difficult for me.
And pony portraits? Do you do this?
Oh yes, a lot. I've developed a "horse and me" package which is very popular.
Do you have a favourite venue?
I think all the clubs provide something special, but for family atmosphere I'd pick Polo Park Zurich. I feel at home there.The season starts of course in the middle of winter with Reto's splendid Snow Polo in St Moritz. An unbelievable event. Poloclub Ascona then gives us a wonderful summer experience and their evening event on an island is truly beautiful. The height of the location in Gstaad in the alps gives me an incredible light to work with. The challenge here is to get rid of the green reflected in the prints due to the intense green of the surroundings. But, after you've done that the light helps produce great shots. And then we have Pierre Genecand's legendary parties.
We're now in Covid-19 lockdown. How is this affecting you personally and your business?
Because the polo season can't really get started, as a player I'm disappointed. I'm working a lot with the ponies but we'd all love to play soon. As far as business is concerned, we've had some tournament cancellations and I hope there won't be too many more. However, it is forcing me to set up different business models and will make me more flexible, so something positive.
Kathrin it's been interesting talking to you. I wish you the very best and thank you so much.
My pleasure, Jan.