Barbara Livingston: Not sure she’s ‘made it’

Livingston captures the cuteness of a Thoroughbred and donkey. Photo by Sandy Zaconick

Livingston captures the cuteness of a Thoroughbred and donkey. Photo by Sandy Zaconick

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.

Livingston is quick to capture the split-second saddling disagreement.

Livingston is quick to capture the split-second saddling disagreement.

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.

Lord Avie is among Livingston’s favorite images.

Lord Avie is among Livingston’s favorite images.

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.

10 responses to “Barbara Livingston: Not sure she’s ‘made it’”

  1. Always Nell

    You’ve made it, girl. Never doubt that.

  2. Louise Martin

    My inspiration and my idol!

    Thanks Susan, for the lovely story!!

  3. Anne

    Rest easy, Barbara Livingston HAS made it! It is as if, the song, “NO One Does it Better” was written about her. She truly is the best in the industry. Let it be known, that she is also a gifted author and painter. I can’t think of anything that this unique person can’t do.

  4. tbdancer

    I love the picture of Lord Avie, taken shortly before he passed. I also loved Barbara’s photos of Pine Island, Lost in the Fog, and other horses that are no longer with us. She has “a way with that camera” and has MORE than made it, in my book.

  5. Megan Grey

    What an insight into Barbara’s world. I knew about her poor eyesight and found out I have something in common with her. I have bad eyes and somewhere along the line lost the ability to see in 3D myself. Apparently my eyes have two different focal points. That fact makes her pictures that much more magical to me. Her pictures provide her fans with an insight not only to the horses, but the unsung heros of the sport. The grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, the jockeys (some might argue that with me, but most people will remember the winner of a big race, not who rode the horse) and of course the gate crew. Believe me Barbara, you’ve made it, big time; and just when I think I’ve seen the best picture you’ve taken, you come along with something even better.

  6. jeanne

    I LOVE Barbara! She is one of the sweetest, most admirable people I have ever met.

  7. Susan Crane-Sundell

    Barbara Livingstone is one of the greatest equine photographers of our time. She captures movement and tranquility with equal grace. She is equivalent to a modern Munnings or Stubbs with a camera. Her passion is reflected in every photograph. Thank you for interviewing her-she is so much a part of the essence of Saratoga-and the world of the horse.


    Dear Barbara:

    Because of your gift…millions of people have been able to see for themselves the “Heart” of magnificent spirit we name, Equestrians:

    You have stepped inside the very thoughts of these beautiful animals and shared this with the world!

    Your fame may be thought of as secular, but for every person who has seen a photograph of your talent, and held back some tears…



  9. Michelle Y.

    What an amazing photographer! And yet so humble. Barbara definitely has a gift. Just those two shots alone say so much – I love them both! I am going to have to go Google some more of her work now!

  10. Victoria Racimo

    Very insightful article. Thank you. You were able to elicit honest, illuminating answers from Barbara. Fascinating.

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