Photographing The Furious Stampede Of The Kentucky Derby

May 6, 2017
Originally published on May 6, 2017 10:39 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The most exciting two minutes in sports happened later today in Louisville, the Kentucky Derby. How do photographers capture the furious action of 20 horses running at the speed of a stampede? Barbara Livingston is one of this nation's preeminent racing photographers. She shot the Triple Crown races for almost 50 years and captured portraits of Secretariat, Barbaro and Zenyatta. Her photos have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair, five books and the Daily Racing Form. She joins us now from a busy Churchill Downs. You're in the photo trailer, right?

BARBARA LIVINGSTON: Yes, indeed. Busy working today. Obviously, culminating with the greatest two minutes in sports Saturday late afternoon.

SIMON: What is there about horses that captured your imagination and your talents for all these years?

LIVINGSTON: They're magical beasts. They're magical creations. They're mythical creatures. That's how we got Pegasus and animals like that. There's something about them that they let us control them. And yet, they have so much power. They could do anything they wanted, but they have such trust in us that they'll do their best for us. And we revere them for it.

SIMON: What makes a great photograph at The Derby or another horse race?

LIVINGSTON: Well, you know, certainly, it depends on the horse race. Obviously, if there are two horses coming down to the wire, you know, all excited with the jockeys with their silks and the action or the mud of Churchill Downs for instance. That's fantastic.

Otherwise, if a jockey celebrates - we're so thrilled if a jockey, for instance, hasn't won before, hasn't gotten used to that thrill yet. And on the way back to the winner's circle, they'll wave at the crowd and the sound of a 120 or 30,000 people yelling back in appreciation is something that stays with you forever. It's a pretty remarkable feeling that you can record that history.

SIMON: Yeah. What's your favorite horse, the one, maybe, we haven't heard about so much?

LIVINGSTON: I had a favorite horse named Sip Sip Sip. In 1971, I saw his picture in the New York Times. I was 10 years old. I liked the name Sip Sip Sip. I followed him for six years. Finally, got to meet him, and I learned that he had no vision in one of his eyes.

And I actually have very limited vision in one eye. I have binocular vision. I use my left eye not my right. And so I was very excited to meet this horse that was my childhood hero just due to his silly name and to learn he also had the one eye.

SIMON: Having seen your photos, you're a genuinely great photographer. How do you do it with the vision problems?

LIVINGSTON: One thing, I don't use my right eye. It has shapes and shadows, but it doesn't really see. So I see everything two dimensionally like a photograph. And then I really get rid of the distractions because I can't see detail. So I see the bigger overall picture - color, shape, light. And I actually think that helps me to compose pictures well.

And then the cameras also have built in eyeglasses called diopters that you can purchase. That is enough that lets me see some sort of detail. I can see if the jockeys are laughing. Or, you know, if the horse looks exceptionally happy and their ears are forward, I can see that.

SIMON: Horse's ears go forward? That's how you know they're happy?

LIVINGSTON: (Laughter) Yeah, like, often a horse will come back to the winner's circle and people are running up and petting him and kissing him on the nose and, you know, loving on them and celebrating. And the jockey is petting him.

And you can sort of tell when a horse's happy. They almost seem to - well, I believe they know that they're proud. They know that they won. And it's just a wonderful time to see that moment and to see the accomplishment between the rider and his horse.

SIMON: Barbara Livingston, the great photographer for The Daily Racing Forum, thanks so much for being with us.

LIVINGSTON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.