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Inside View

Arts project gives Saratoga Race Course workers the opportunity to take a fresh look at their world—through a lens

by Liz O'Connell on July 20, 2011

Photo by Louie Garcia

A View From the Backstretch, the new photography exhibit at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, turns the tables on traditional racing photography. The exhibiting artists are racing’s backstretch workers and their point of view is from deep inside racing and the racetrack, as participants rather than observers.

Works by grooms, hotwalkers, exercise riders, backstretch kitchen cooks, a maintenance worker, a horse ambulance driver and a trainer are represented in the collection of 60 photographs currently showing in the racing museum’s Von Stade Gallery.

It’s all there. The play of light through overarching branches that trellis so much of the backstretch. Fragments of the painstaking daily routines that that sustain the horses. Victory donuts and a coiled water hose. These are all images from this world tucked away on the 350 acres of barns, housing, roads and paths, sheds and garages, and training tracks that define the backstretch.

Carole Williams is an exercise rider for trainer Bruce Levine. What she sees though her camera’s lens is particular, focused. “I like looking at things up close, just parts of the horse. It’s more interesting,” says Williams, “There are two paddocks over in the Annex, across Fifth Avenue. (Eclipse Award winning trainer) Jonathan Sheppard keeps his horses over there and they get turned out every day before they train. Some of the horses go around the puddles, some get right in them. This horse was pawing in water that was about a foot deep in the low spot of the paddock. Then he laid down and rolled in it.” Williams’ photograph captures texture and nuance; the underlying gleam of the horse’s coat, a relaxed ear, a happy, healthy muddy horse.

Documentary photographer and project director Dona Ann McAdams has had this kind of venture in the back of her mind since her first visit to the backstretch in 2004, and she has shepherded the project from the germ of an idea through fruition. She was drawn to the community built on the Oklahoma training section of the Saratoga Race Course for eight months a year.

“Once I started spending time there, I couldn’t not be there. I was a goner,” says McAdams. She currently holds a license as a stable employee, and hotwalks when called upon.

“I wanted to have the backstretch workers take their own pictures instead of having cameras pointed at them,” McAdams explains. “For them to approach photography not as journalism, but as a documentary, to give them the opportunity to tell their own story. I taught them the traditional way of shooting, not a win shot. I encouraged them with how much they could do with the kind of materials and the point-and-shoot camera they had.”

“With a little teeny camera and a roll of color film, they could still take a really compelling photograph, and combine their love of the horse and photography,” she says.

“In the beginning people were like ‘What’s in this shot?’ I said ‘No, no-no-no, no. Look at why this is a good photograph,’ and we’d have a talk about that. You don’t have to have a bunch of horses galloping around. Think of what else you might be able to do. How else you can tell your story.”

To get started, McAdams went around the backstretch rounding up her nascent photographers in the spring of 2010. Some she knew, some she didn’t. Beyond the 15 backstretch photographers represented in the show, upwards of 30 individuals could have been working on their photography at one time. They met every Tuesday morning to look at and talk about their photographs. Classes were convened on the hood of McAdams’ car, on a picnic table behind recreation center, or wherever was handy for the workers.

“I learned a lot from Dona without it being formal. The great thing about the way Dona teaches is you don’t really know you are learning. She would say, ‘This is a great photograph,’ and then explain why,” says Siggy Wallace, who currently assists her trainer husband, and has a horse blanket repair business.

“Dona went through books with us and showed us the technical ‘why good’ aspects of photographs,” Wallace adds. “The mystical part of it is what comes next, it becomes second nature, when it all comes together it’s a gift. You have to give yourself the best chance to get the picture.”

“That’s what Dona gave us—opportunity,” Wallace says. Tips like showing us you can photograph into the light at this time of day, or to get closer up. . . . It was fun,” Wallace enthused.

Louie Garcia is walking hots this year. There was some talk of ponying horses out to train in the morning. Whatever happens, Louie will have his camera within reach, documenting track life from his perspective. He says, “This summer I want to take pictures of the horses working at full speed. I’m taking photos of them with a different background, like over on the Oklahoma turf course. I’m on the rail, the horses are in there on the grass, we’re close. It’s actually pretty nice.” Word travels on the backstretch, and Louie’s photography has become known to the extent that he has had exercise riders request that he photograph them as they ride. Perhaps another career for Mr. Garcia? In fact, all the photographers’ images in the gallery are available for purchase.


A View From the Backstretch will be on view until December 31, 2011, at the National Museum of Racing, opposite the race course on Union Avenue, Saratoga Springs. The exhibit was funded by the Workforce Development Institute, and photographers with work in the show are Alvin Davis. Carole Williams, Chris Stephens, Esperanza Nolazco, Frank Fodera. Heather Coots, Kenny Streicher, Louie Garcia, Maximino Nolazco, Paul Perry, Salvador Hernandez, Shannon Geiser, Siggy Wallace, Steve Lockett, and Veronika Laciokova.For more info, call 584-0400.