Those of us who follow horse racing are accustomed to seeing the sport of kings depicted in full-color action shots—the field bunched up at the far turn, the winner crossing the wire, the jockey’s colorful silks as he or she raises an arm in victory. But photographer Ellen Rennard has, with her series entitled “The Downs at Albuquerque” captured the sport in a unique way, less sport of kings and more sport of hard work. As David Bram, editor of Fraction Magazine noted, “Ellen Rennard has a way of seeing people that most of us do not. Her portraits shine a subtle light into the lives of her subjects and give us a glimpse of their beauty and uniqueness.”
The 30 photographs that make up the series are shot in black and white and printed with silver gelatin in order to, in her words, “suggest the look of photographs from the heyday of racing.” They first appeared in a solo exhibition at the Griffin Museum of Photograph’s Atelier Gallery at the Stoneham Theatre, in Stoneham, MA. Ellen was kind enough to answer some questions about her photographs in an email interview. Below are a few of the them along with her comments. To view the entire series, click here.
“In the paddock” — The strain on the handlers’ legs appears in the way that their pants are bunched up. The horse facing the camera looks calm, much more so than the handlers. This photo reminded a photographer friend of mine of Cartier-Bresson. He noted that you use film, as C-B did. His contact sheets show that he usually took just one shot of a subject and is known for capturing what he called “the decisive moment.” So I’m curious: do you use a camera with a motor drive, or do you take shots one at a time and press the shutter at the perfect instant?
I shoot with a Hasselblad, no motor drive, and yes, I pressed the shutter at the perfect instant that time. However, I’m not shooting in the manner of C-B.
“Spirit of the West” — This is one of my favorites. I love the symmetry of the composition, but more than that, I love the juxtaposition of features — the mural, the tack on the wall that says “racing,” the torn fabric on the ledge that says “well worn,” and the unused calendar that says “time doesn’t mean anything here.” Could you talk about what that photograph represents to you?
You’ve pretty much got it. In New Mexico, there is a mix of cowboy and horseracing culture. It’s not unusual for jockeys to also ride on the rodeo circuit, for instance. And in the whole body of work I’m playing with ideas about time and how a lot in racing has not changed much at all for decades.
“Jo Jo” — You’ve captured the essence of a small man who has the strength and fierceness to handle a large, powerful animal. There’s an intensity and a formidableness to his expression. All of your subjects appear trusting and open. How do you interact with them to make that happen?
I spend a lot of time just hanging around, not just on the backside of the track in the morning but also on the front during races. In the morning, I sometimes get there before there’s enough light to shoot. I might just stand at the rail and watch the workouts. Since some of the jockeys are also exercise riders, they see me around. They know I’m interested and hard at work, just like they are. They know I love horses just like most of them do. I listen and observe and don’t judge; I don’t talk much. I actually don’t know Jo-Jo as well as some of the others, but I knew about him through others — knew that he was highly respected, had been around a long time, etc. I made friends with the track vet early on in the project, and he has been a good source of information too. But I think also that I photographed the people who trusted me and who were open. Not everyone was like that. And I sometimes waited years for the right moment.
“Ribs” — That is a really haunting image to see from a racetrack. Could you talk about that one?
It’s unusual, but still, at a track like this one, you get horses that are at the bottom of the barrel — $5000 claimers. This is the opposite end of the spectrum from what we usually see on TV with Triple Crown races. This horse is too thin, and didn’t seem well. You don’t usually see a horse that is in such bad shape on the back side. But these kinds of problems do exist in horseracing.
“Before the Race” — This one is remarkable because only one of the men is looking at the camera, which implies a talent for pointing a camera at people without drawing attention to yourself, not an easy thing to do. Again, no question, but do comment if you’d like.
I hung out at the paddock a lot, and when I first started, in 2003, the meet was held in the spring. I knew a lot of the jockeys by name. In general jockeys like to be photographed, and they’re used to it. I think the jockey in this photo knew he was giving me a good “look.” Another advantage I have is that with the Hasselblad, I can look down into the camera, focus and frame the shot, and then look up at the person and talk eyeball to eyeball, which you can’t do with a lot of other cameras. Then I can look back down at the ground glass, adjust a little if I need to, and take the shot. If the person is looking too frozen or uncomfortable, we talk more. Does that make sense?
A general question — I notice that in most of the pictures with horses, either their eyes are covered, they’re looking away, or you seem to deliberately leave their heads out of the shots. Was that a conscious decision? And if so, what are you saying by choosing to portray them that way?
Oh my, I never realized that I did that.
Another general question— What do you think the collection, taken as a whole, says about racing? Or maybe what were you trying to say about racing as an artist?
It’s complicated and I’m not sure I entirely know the answer, as it kept changing as the project evolved. You can read my statement on my website. It definitely started out as a sort of romanticized nostalgia for a beautiful sport, but then the more I learned, the more complicated the story got. But I was interested in the spirit of racing, which I think has not changed — the best of it. People who love horses, who take good care of their animals, who love the sport.
Ellen Rennard has been a interested in photography for most of her life. She holds a B.A. from Princeton University, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans, as well as an M.A. in English from Middlebury College. Ellen began to photograph in earnest in 1998 and has studied with Douglas Kent Hall and Shelby Lee Adams. She has served as an assistant to Adams and as the still photographer for the documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures. A recipient of numerous awards for her photography, Ellen currently teaches English at Groton School, writes book reviews for Fraction Magazine and photo-eye, and is working on a book about The Downs at Albuquerque. You can visit her website here.