Behind the Lens: Two Million Photographs, One Passionate Historian

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Alydar & John VeitchJim Raftery/Turfotos

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Two summers ago, when six-time Eclipse Award-winning photographer Barbara D. Livingston acquired the entire five-decade archive of noted 20th Century racetrack photographer Jim Raftery, she thought the hard part would be getting the 300 oversized boxes from Florida to New York in the middle of a pandemic.

Turns out Livingston was wrong. After two years of sifting through the massive collection, she said the truly “impossible task” ended up being having to select some 60 images out of more than two million for a just-opened exhibit titled “Jim Raftery: A Turfotos Retrospective” at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

James Joseph Raftery (1915-1994) won his first race as a jockey at age 20 at the Marshfield Fair in Massachusetts. He grew out of that profession and took work as a hot dog vendor at East Coast tracks. As an amateur photographer with only a cheap camera, Raftery caught a break one afternoon when a customer left behind an expensive camera at his Tropical Park stand. According to the bio that accompanies his Hall of Fame exhibit, Raftery brought that camera to the lost and found booth. When it went unclaimed, he was allowed to keep it.

That stroke of fortune started Raftery's half-century run as a track photographer. After fighting overseas in the Army during World War II, he parlayed an assistant's job at Hialeah into eventually operating the winner's circle and publicity photo businesses at all the major tracks in Florida and New Jersey, plus numerous smaller meets up and down the Eastern seaboard.

During the sport's glory decades, his venture, Turfotos, fed the insatiable appetite of the nation's newspapers, whose readers were hungry for images of Thoroughbred action and celebrities who attended the races. Raftery's archives are not only replete with equine and human stars, but are brimming with hidden-gem portraits of unheralded backstretch workers from a bygone era.

Livingston, when not shooting as Daily Racing Form's chief photographer, has evolved into racing's most passionate curator of historic images. In a conversation on the eve of the exhibit's July 14 opening, she spoke about the Raftery collection as part of TDN's occasional series on equine photography. An edited and condensed transcript follows:

TDN: I had assumed you knew Raftery pretty well long before you acquired his staggering trove of work. But-somewhat humorously-that's not the case, right?

BDL: At the time, every photographer knew who Jim Raftery was. And he could be a little scary. He was always dressed in a suit jacket, and he was very serious about his work. Even though he apparently had a fantastic sense of humor and everybody loved him, for somebody like me, who was young and getting started, I was too scared to talk to him.

Around 1990, I went to Hialeah with my boyfriend at the time, also a photographer. We got credentialed for the day, but my boyfriend had dressed very casually. We showed up at the track, and the only thing I remember was Jim Raftery verbally dressing us down for how my boyfriend had literally dressed down. Jim basically told us your attire needs to reflect respect for photography and respect for the sport. And that was the only conversation I ever had with him!

It's funny, because last year I spoke with my then-boyfriend, and he said, “Barbara, I learned from that!” And I did too! I might wear blue jeans on the backstretch in the morning. But if I'm caught like that at the track in the afternoon, I'd be horrified. So 32 years later, that's the one personal impact Jim had on me. I was scared of him and it wasn't his fault. He was right.

TDN: So fill in the blanks, then. How did you eventually connect with Raftery's photographs?

BDL: I've been collecting horse racing photographers' negatives since the late 1990s. A gentleman by the name of Jim Sames had the last image ever shot of Man O' War. He only photographed horse racing for maybe a decade, but had some remarkable images. I went and met him because I wanted to buy a print. And he ended up selling me his negative collection, which was something I had never even thought of. He didn't have any children to leave the collection to. I didn't want it to end up in a dumpster. So I drove home with three boxes full of negatives of Whirlaway, Man O' War and Citation. It felt like I had history in my front seat.

Since then, I've acquired maybe four or five photographers' collections, but nothing of the scale of Raftery's work. Jim's family had kept the collection safe after his death. A couple of years ago I was speaking with his granddaughter-I don't remember quite why, but I'm sure it was because someone was looking for a historic image that I thought the family might have. I learned they were at the point where they knew they'd done all they could with the collection as far as getting it out to the world. But they wanted to get Jim's name seen again, and wanted to make sure his collection carried on. So we worked out details, and I acquired it because they were ready for it to go to the next place.

TDN: You live near Saratoga and the collection was down near Miami. Transporting it must have been no small task, especially in the middle of a pandemic.

BDL: I rented a huge U-Haul. Three of Raftery's family members helped with loading some 300 boxes onto it, and I also recruited four racetrackers to help. One of them was Walter Blum Jr., and his father, the retired Hall-of-Fame jockey, had been very dear friends with Jim Raftery. Many of the very boxes he was moving had images of his dad in them! So that was a fun aspect of racing history that was involved. The U-Haul ended up not being big enough, so I also rented an SUV and filled that up, and then another carload.

TDN: What state of organization were the archives in, and give us an idea of the scope and size.

BDL: It made me realize how badly my own collection is organized! I came up with a rough count of somewhere between 2.5 and 3 million negatives. But it will take you just a minute to find, say, Never Bow's 1970 Widener H. win. You can go right to the date of the race, and there they are: Six or eight images of that race that were shot by a 4-by-5-inch camera, and the negatives are 4-by-5-inch. And by the 1970s, Jim had 35 millimeter cameras involved, so you could easily have 25 or 30 negatives per race.

There's also boxes like “1958, Waterford Park” that had the whole season's programs, rubber-banded, in date order, with the order of finish and results handwritten for each race. He also kept hand-written notebooks that cross-referenced the dates when individual horses won races so he could look them up if somebody wanted a print in the future. His handwriting is so precious, so beautiful.

I think 1949 was the first full box. Some of the earlier stuff seems to have been lost, which is a terrible shame. But believe me, 1949 to 1994 is enough to deal with.

TDN: What's your process for sifting through it all?

BDL: For the first week or two, I just grabbed a box that I thought, “This is going to be loaded with good stuff! Like, 1964 at Hialeah-this is going to have good treasure!” And there's no doubt that was true. But then I started feeling guilty for the 1958 Waterford boxes. And those horses, even though I had never heard of them, their histories became all-encompassing. So I went through every single one of the boxes-it didn't take that long because I was so obsessed with it.

As I did this, I changed them over from the cardboard boxes they were in and I put them in plastic boxes so they would be better protected. I've been scanning them in my spare time. I've scanned somewhere between 16,000 and 18,000 of them so far. The eventual goal is to have all of these be seen online.

TDN: Although the general public would probably want boxes full of prints, I'll bet as a photographer, you must have been thrilled to find original-source negatives.

BDL: Some people might say, “What are you going to do with these things? It's an envelope with a strip of film that says Nashua or Bold Ruler. What's the point?” And obviously, to me, the point is just to preserve the history, and hope that someone someday will take that time to turn them into pictures again. They're like cocoons, and they're waiting to get changed back to butterflies.”

TDN: Have people contacted you in search of long-lost images?

BDL: A really neat example just happened a week ago. A young woman sent me an email that said, “My father was a jockey in the 1980s, and I didn't know if you happened to have any images of him, because I really have nothing.” So I looked him up and he only raced for a decade, but mostly in New Jersey. I found the shot of his first win, and his first handicap race win. He seems to have won only about 250 races, but I'm guessing by the dates that I have about 150 of them. So now she's going to have some photos of her dad as a jockey.

TDN: Which images in the collection stand out for you?

BDL: I'm extra-fascinated by things that took setup. Jim liked to set up shots because back then the news agencies would pick up these pictures and run them all over the place, and I would think there would be incredible inspiration in knowing that would happen. But later in his career, newspapers were not publishing racing images so much.

So possibly my favorite is Nashua and Swaps being posed together [presumably prior to their 1955 match race]. You don't see pictures of them together, other than racing. So that kind of picture–Carry Back touching noses with Kelso. Moccasin and Thong–two fillies who ended up being among the greatest producers we've had. They're full sisters. Moccasin was a champion. Thong was not a champion. So to have a picture of those two together, that kind of picture to me is absolutely doubly fascinating and fun, because it's something we just wouldn't do now these days. When Mr. Raftery was shooting, horse photography was a different thing.

TDN: How so?

   BDL: I mean, Raftery shot everything. He shot social changes. There's an image in the exhibit of jockeys sitting in the jockeys' room watching the moon landing on television in in 1969. By the 1960s, his photo IDs say things like “patrons in hot pants” or “women in pantsuits.” It's sort of hilarious-sad and wonderful-to see the changes. He said female jockeys were the best thing that ever happened, and the negative files are often identified as “jockette” or “girl jockeys.”

TDN: Can you spot fundamental changes in the way photographers worked, too?

BDL: At one point, Raftery said, “I will not shoot a winner's circle picture of anyone obscuring a horse. The horse did it; the horse is a beautiful thing.” And that was a later-career quote, because in the early days, you only had the groom in the shot. Possibly the owner. And if you had the valet, they were way off on the side trying not to be in the photo. And now, sometimes you barely see the horse's head, because there are 200 people surrounding the horse. Jim would not have taken kindly to that.

TDN: What do you think Raftery's reaction to having an exhibit in the Hall of Fame would be?

BDL: I read a magazine profile of Jim from the 1950s or '60s, and he said something to the effect of, “I'll never be in the Hall of Fame, but my horse pictures might end up on the wall of a sick child's room.” I don't remember the exact quote, but what he said was very thoughtful and kind and empathetic to humanity. He really loved people, and he loved what he did.

I don't have words to explain how great this man was. And I don't think there's any American racing photographer who had nearly his scope of work, basically a half century covering six racetracks where he was a full-time photographer. So the breadth of his work, and the debt that racing owes him-it's more than we could repay. I'm just really grateful he was in the world, and that I could help protect this collection and see it on to its next destination, wherever that may be

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