New Jersey native Bill Denver is today's subject in TDN's rotating series profiling racetrack photographers. We ask about memorable horses, races, and people they've viewed through the lens, and also talk about how the craft of equine imagery has evolved.
Denver, 60, is the founder of Equi-Photo, which currently shoots the races and provides winner's circle photographs at Monmouth Park, the Meadowlands Thoroughbred meet, Parx, and Penn National.
Separate from his work at East Coast tracks, Denver has previously freelanced for college athletic departments and numerous newspapers, including the New York Daily News, and he also shoots for corporate clients that range from hospitals to power plants. His nearly five-decade portfolio includes everything from space shuttle launches to the Triple Crown.
In an interview that has been edited for clarity and brevity, Denver began by telling how he had to travel far from his Jersey roots before coming back home to find his professional calling.
TDN: How did you first become interested in photography?
BD: I really got into it on a cross-country bicycle trip I did back when I was 22 years old. I rode a bike from my home in New Jersey with the intention of going straight across to Oregon. But when I got out to western Wyoming, I headed up through Yellowstone, then decided to go up to Glacier National Park. I continued on, crossing the Continental Divide eight times, believe it or not.
And then I went into Canada, and kept going through to British Columbia, then down to Seattle. I eventually did end up down in Oregon. Then I just said, “Ah, I'll just keep going,” so I went all the way to San Francisco. It ended up being 5,000 miles in two months. And I took a lot of photos, all across America–a great way to see the country.
TDN: Once you got bitten by the photography bug, how did it lead you to the track?
BD: I grew up in Rumson, right near Monmouth Park. I had gone there with my parents when I was a kid, and I just thought it would be a neat place to work. So in 1984, I went over to see [track photographer] Jim Raftery of Turfotos, and he ended up hiring me.
But Jim ended up hiring me to work at Atlantic City Race Course, even though I actually wanted to work at Monmouth. At that time, back in the early 1980s, Monmouth ran on weekends in April. So he brought me in for two weekends to train me, and then he said, “OK, you're in charge–at Atlantic City,” where Turfotos also shot.
So I kind of got thrown into the frying pan down at Atlantic City. It was night racing, five nights a week, and then I would help Jim at Monmouth for the bigger races. It was like a 90-mile drive, but Jim used to have a camper he would haul up from Florida and leave in Atlantic City, and I would stay in that. Then in the winters, I would go down and help out at Hialeah and Gulfstream.
In 1988, I took over at Monmouth. Then Meadowlands followed. And then Suffolk Downs, from 1992 until 2001. Then I did Gulfstream from 1995 until 2007. That was the year that my son, Ryan, was entering high school. And I figured that was enough of being away all the time.
TDN: And now Ryan has followed you into the business, sharing the workload at Monmouth. How old was he when he first showed an interest?
BD: He's been doing this for years, way before Monmouth hosted the Breeders' Cup in 2007. My daughter, Jessica, also helped for many years, but she's a mom now, so she really isn't involved anymore. Ryan started out when he was nine, and he's been doing it on and off for years–he's 28 now. I'll just never forget him helping out during the massive rainstorms during that '07 Breeders' Cup, just drying cameras and equipment, non-stop.
I was asked in 2017 to join the Eclipse Sportswire team that shoots at the Breeders' Cup. And then Ryan got asked the next year, so we both have been able to shoot that event together the last few years. Ryan's been doing really well and is enjoying it.
TDN: About those the monsoon conditions at Monmouth's first and only Breeders' Cup–how does a professional photographer work under such adverse elements?
BD: Your strategy changes. Obviously, it goes from having a plethora of ideas of where you're going to shoot to, “What's the most important shot and how do I keep the cameras working?” That's the main thing. It just was finish line, winner's circle, dry the cameras in the scale house. I just got stuck out there. If you don't keep those cameras dry, they're going to fail on you, and you don't want to miss anything shooting the Breeders' Cup.
TDN: You've now been shooting trackside for nearly 40 years. What have been the big game-changers in photography during that span?
BD: It all does come back to the transition from film to digital photography, whether it be in the printing or the editing. Or in the way we save photos–we don't have boxes of negatives anymore. It's all on hard drives, which makes it more mobile.
I'm finding that the ability to do things remotely is great–like if I don't go out to Penn one night, I can just check in with my staff and see the photos, or even post them on social media from our archives. That's something you could never do years ago. I think of way back when, we used to transport a whole, full-color darkroom down to Florida and back on a U-Haul.
TDN: Conveniences aside, do you ever pine for the aesthetics of film photography? I know some photographers say film produces richer prints with better color and contrast.
BD: I don't really feel that way. If I go out in the morning, it really doesn't matter if it's film or digital to me. Digital makes it a lot easier to see what you're getting, and you get a lot more shots. You can go right back [to the office] and see it on a screen. So that makes life easier. I see a lot of photographers now who are shooting film, but they end up scanning it anyway to try and do a digital image. I don't really see any disadvantage with digital as far as that's concerned.
TDN: How much of your time is spent managing Equi-Photo versus actually shooting? What's the ideal balance?
BD: Obviously, I have to manage the business, but I do still get out and shoot a lot. I always wish I had more time to shoot. But I keep a pretty good balance; the exact ratio I'm not sure of. I do go out and shoot a lot of races, edit a lot of photos, and things like that when it comes to publicity.
That's one of the things I want to stress: We've always made it a point, right from the beginning, how important it is to publicize racing and to publicize the tracks we work for. So we're always sending out photos with captions, whether it's a stakes race or just something interesting. We've also started to do that on our social media as well.
It can't be done without a good crew. We also have teams of two at Parx and Penn. They all understand what needs to be done–what the horsemen need, what the track needs, everything from action shots to marketing to win photos.
TDN: Photographers see things differently from the rest of us. What goes through your mind when you're prowling trackside for shots?
BD: That's something we try to do every day–get something artistic, try to see something that other people don't see, or from an angle that they can't see it, and get a good photo of it. But at the same time, it's just as important nowadays to edit. When you go back and look at those images, you really have to take your time and find the right one. You might end up in the editing process selecting a photo that isn't your best shot. You're looking for good light, emotion, and good action.
TDN: Today everyone with a smart phone has a fairly powerful camera with them for a day at the races. But the average joe can't access the restricted areas open only to credentialed photographers. Any advice for hobbyists who want to get good shots from the track apron or grandstand?
BD: Just find your own spot. There are so many great angles at racetracks that you don't have to go where the professional photographers are to get nice, beautiful pictures of horses the whole length of the track. And with today's phone cameras, you have the luxury of being able to take lots and lots of shots. Keep shooting. The more you shoot, the better you get. Just keep learning.
TDN: What's in your portfolio that stands out?
BD: I've got a few shots that I'm most proud of. I've got one from the 1997 [GII] Fountain of Youth [S.], with Shane Sellers on his way back after winning with Pulpit. The horse was covered in mud, and right as Shane reached forward to kiss him on the neck, Pulpit kind of bowed his head a little bit and the shot came out really nice.
And in 2010, Lookin At Lucky was here at Monmouth getting ready for the Haskell. I just got a great shot of him covered in soap while being bathed by his groom, Roberto Luna. Those were two that really stood out as memories.
TDN: To wrap it up, let's say you have a day off with no obligations. You can just grab a camera and go shoot, anywhere. Where do you go
BD: I'd go to the backstretch and get some good photos with the early morning light. That would be my preferable day-off thing to do.
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