Asked when she knew she’d really made it as a photographer, three-time Eclipse Award winner Barbara Livingston says she’s not sure she really has.
Despite the awards, and despite having seen her hauntingly beautiful photographs grace the covers of too many magazines to count—including Vanity Fair, Sports Illustrated and almost every major Thoroughbred publication—she humbly replies, “I still sometimes think I haven’t made it.”
She adds that she is constantly striving to improve the work she began 35 years ago, when she witnessed Secretariat and Ruffian run in the early 70s.
Just a kid at the time, she made it her life’s ambition to chronicle the Sport of Kings.
Years later, soon after graduating Syracuse University with a degree in experimental photography, Livingston’s work appeared on the cover of the Blood-Horse. And the rest is history!
In this week’s Clubhouse Q&A, Livingston discusses her career with horses.
Q: Barbara, I had read that you began taking photos when you were very young, at Saratoga Race Course. Just what inspired you to become a horse racing photographer?
When I was very young, my parents took me to the track —we lived close to Saratoga, making me a very lucky girl. I snapped shots with an Instamatic, and looking at the photos afterward amazed me. The fact that I could capture a random moment in time, and keep it with me forever, seemed magical.
It was the immortal Ruffian that changed me. When she won the Spinaway in a stakes-record setting performance, it didn’t just awe me, but forged my career path.
The photos I took that day were terrible but it didn’t matter. It was Ruffian, and I had managed to record her forever. Around that time, I wrote in a diary that, when I grew up, I was going to be a horse racing photographer.
Q: The decades of hard work, which followed that day, have rewarded you with cover-shots on major sports and mainstream news magazine covers, and on many others in the horse world, not to mention books. Of all the accolades, covers and awards, which achievement told you that you had really made it as a photographer?
Good question! I still sometimes think I haven’t made it — especially when rent payments are due. I am always working to improve at my craft.
The first Eclipse Award felt great, as it made me realize the type of photography I most enjoyed— far from the standard finish-line fare— had value to someone. My second “Not bad!” moment was the publication of my first book, The Four Seasons of Racing.
Interestingly— to me, at least— both things happened due to the efforts of Ray Paulick, who was at that time editor of The Blood-Horse. I am forever indebted to him for his belief in my work.
Q: What is it about the Thoroughbred that inspires you, as a fan and an artist?
Short answer: What doesn’t?
Long answer: I don’t really know, other than the very obvious … Thoroughbreds are magnificent, proud, strong, fast, beautiful creatures— almost mythical, and certainly magical.
Each is unique as a snowflake and every inch of them, from their pointy ears to the heels of their feet, holds a beauty that compels me to aim a camera their way. I can’t help myself. It is, no doubt, an obsession.
Q: Your pictures capture the mood of a moment with such insight, with the look in a horse’s eye, or the way the light glistens off his muscles. Can you explain how you capture all this in one shot?
Thank you – what a compliment. I’m not sure quite why I ‘see’ horses as I do but perhaps it’s due to three main things:
First: by the time I was 7 or 8 I was riding horses, bareback at a gallop, with twine through their halters — a few years before I began taking pictures. To say that I love horses seems understatement. As such, I understand horses better than most photographers do — some of whom are not even horse fans.
Second: I was born with bad vision and had eye surgery when young. I only use my left eye for vision; my right eye only sees shadows and shapes, and see in 2D, rather than 3.
I’ve never actually seen anything in 3D (can’t even attend a 3D movie without getting dizzy), although I understand the concept. Perhaps it helps that I see the world like a photograph, which is, of course, 2D.
Third: practice, practice, practice. And with subjects like horses, “practice” is a great, inspirational word. — This interview was originally published on Jan. 23, 2013.