Nestled among some of Lexington's famous Thoroughbred farms on Old Frankfort Pike sits a unique opportunity for horse racing fans and historians. The Headley-Whitney Museum recently opened an exhibit of photos from Tony Leonard, the artist often called “the Ansel Adams of the Thoroughbred industry.” The exhibit marks the first time many of the images will be seen by anyone besides Leonard, his wife, or the collection's curators. After being packed away for years, the photographs transport visitors to a different era of horse racing.
The museum was eager that the exhibit reflect Leonard's versatility as a photographer. Although he is best known for his meticulous conformation shots of yearlings and stallions, Leonard's lenses captured a wide variety of portraits, racing scenes, and candid photos of both Thoroughbreds and people in his 50-year career. He also brought his creative eye to his travels, which is reflected in the exhibit with a few shots of the World Trade Center, an African safari, and portraits of agricultural workers in Quebec.
Leonard had a knack for capturing the personality of his human and equine subjects in a single click.
“You can definitely see that as you go through the exhibit,” said Amy Gundrum Greene, director and curator of the Headley-Whitney Museum. “Especially in his portrait shots, where you can tell that they're just a little bit staged, but not too much. They're capturing the moment.”
As someone who missed the chance to see many of Leonard's subjects in person, the experience of walking through the exhibit of 188 photographs was overpowering. It was akin to walking through the grandstand on Kentucky Derby day, shaking hands with the main characters in racing's history books, one after another. On the walls of the museum's galleries, Bob and Beverly Lewis join a crowd gathered around a television screen during the 1999 Preakness Stakes, Beverly on the edge of her seat watching Charismatic's progress. Joe Taylor stands with three of his sons sporting mops of dark hair, pausing a 30-year-old conversation to look at Leonard's lens. Laz Barrera closes his eyes as he plants a kiss on the nose of Mister Frisky.
I knew from previous research that Leslie Combs II had a personality and a half, and it really shows in his appearances in the exhibit. My favorite shot of him is an outtake from what I assume was meant as a regal portrait of Combs between legendary stallions Swaps and Nashua, taken at Spendthrift in 1967. Horses being horses, neither stud is cooperating — one has begun rearing, to the annoyance of his groom, while the other has a front hoof raised in a defiant forward kick. Combs, just a few feet from both meltdowns, has struck an Elvis-like pose, caught between bravado and a very real need to avoid flying feet, swinging from one foot to the other with an expression that could either read as amused or concerned.
Leonard also had a knack for bringing the personality of horses to life on film. In the first room of the exhibit, the great Secretariat shows his goofy side, sitting on his haunches in the middle of his field at Claiborne, ears pricked, as if he's aware of how closely his pose resembles a circus pony. Roberto is shown rearing with delightedly pricked ears. Unbridled is reaching with an open mouth and pinned ears towards the nose of an unsuspecting stablemate next door to him at Pimlico.
Leonard was the personal photographer to Queen Elizabeth II on her visits to the Bluegrass region. The Queen looks bright and engaged during various inspections of yearlings and stallions, shaking hands with jockeys, watching the proceedings at Keeneland with a chipper Ted Bassett. Most of the people around her — grooms, riders, farm managers — look either strained at the stress of meeting royalty or completely enthralled. A display case shows carefully catalogued prints in albums that Leonard apparently sent to Buckingham Palace for their perusal after one trip.
Bobby Shiflet, one of three owners of the Leonard Collection, said the cache of around 500,000 negatives was almost lost to the ether. Leonard and his wife became wards of the state of Kentucky in 2009 when their health began to deteriorate as a result of dementia, which meant the state also controlled their five decades of work. Shiflet, a longtime friend of Leonard, was recruited to help find a purchaser for the collection around 2010. The photographer was very concerned the images all be kept together, rather than sold off piecemeal, but deals kept falling through and the bills for the Leonards' care piled up. In 2012, Shiflet got the ultimatum — he had 30 days to send the collection to the auction block.
“It made me sick to my stomach,” said Shiflet, recalling a conversation about the problem with friend John Adger. “We said, 'It's a shame, kind of like the Calumet trophies being busted up. Someday we'll look back on this and think we could have stopped it.'”
So they did — Adger and Shiflet partnered with David Sorrell to buy the entire lot in 2012. Leonard died a few months later at the age of 89. Together with an assistant, Shiflet, who owns the gallery Frames on Main in Paris, Ky., has spent three years cataloguing the collection. He estimates the project is less than halfway finished.
“It's very important to history. There's nobody else, to my knowledge, that has the depth and the breadth that he had,” said Shiflet. “He had not just a good eye for conformation, but he also had a really artistic eye.”
The exhibit is the first large-scale move to bring Leonard's work to the public. Shiflet and his partners are still brainstorming ways to provide more access to the images once the catalogue is finished. In the meantime, the public reception to the exhibit has been hugely positive.
The Tony Leonard exhibit runs through June 19 at the Headley-Whitney Museum, which is open Wednesday through Sunday.
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