As images come flowing from the rail at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, documenting every move of Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist's quest for the Triple Crown, a dedicated team in Paris, Ky. is still drowning in images from Triple Crowns past.
Kate Lossen isn't quite sure what her official title is in her capacity with the Tony Leonard Collection; she guesses she's something like a curator, promoter, and archivist of the cache of some 500,000 negative strips and many more prints from the prolific racing photographer. Readers were delighted by our report on an exhibition of Leonard's photographs being shown at the Headley-Whitney Museum in Lexington, Ky. through June 19, but many may not realize the exhibit is based on Lossen's discoveries from only a portion of the collection. The volume of photos is so great that in four years of working full-time, Lossen estimates she has scanned and catalogued just a third of the entire thing.
The three owners of the collection refer to themselves as “accidental historians” who hadn't planned to embark on this enormous preservation project. Bobby Shiflet, owner of Frames on Main gallery in downtown Paris, was asked to find a buyer for the photos and negatives after Leonard and his wife became wards of the state. The state's takeover of the Leonards' care was turbulent and fraught with objections from the Leonards and their close friends. They lost control of their belongings, including the photo collection, as their assets had to be liquidated to pay rising medical bills. Shiflet was a friend of the couple and brought in to find a buyer.
Twice in two years of work, Shiflet said he was extremely close to having the collection sold in its entirety to unidentified buyers, but each deal fell through at the last minute. Despite his shaky health, Leonard was clear he didn't want his life's work sold piecemeal.
Shiflet had a deadline by which he needed to send the pieces to the auction block if a private buyer was unavailable. He worried much of Leonard's work would be lost to the ether — and impossible to pull back together in the future. With weeks remaining, Shiflet convinced John Adger and David Sorrell to partner with him on the purchase.
“Looking back on it now, I think it was providential,” said Shiflet. “Now I think it was meant to be for me to be a part of it. If I had consulted an accountant, they'd probably have said, 'No, don't do it.' I went in hoping to get my money back but knowing there was no guarantee, and that if I don't it's important enough that it's ok.”
Once they landed the collection, the trio learned their first challenge was figuring out what exactly they had. All three run their own businesses, so they asked Lossen to help.
Thanks to Adelle Leonard, the negatives and prints were organized in their own system. Lossen began cataloguing images in the boxes and envelopes labeled with notable horses' names, including those overflowing with never-before-seen pictures of Seattle Slew, Affirmed, and Secretariat. At some point, she dove into the many boxes from Leonard's time as Queen Elizabeth II's personal photographer, walking alongside Leonard's lens on trips to Keeneland and various Central Kentucky breeding farms for horse inspections.
The catalogue process includes a digital scan of the image, plus indexing the photo in three different ways by location, date, and subjects. Although she has gotten to know the particulars of many famous racehorses and stallions, Lossen sometimes runs across a horse she's not sure about, or finds places where the film suddenly shifts to a different, unidentified farm. That's when she goes down the rabbit hole of research, digging through the American Racing Manuals piled in the corner of her workspace or emailing out questions to the collection's owners or racing historians for advice. She's even queried Facebook followers on the Collection's page when she's stumped and has found a few answers that way.
“I don't think people realize how distinct horses' coats, coloring, and scars are; it's just like a fingerprint for a lot of them,” said Lossen, who passes many of her days in the dim basement of a bank outside the vault where the photos are kept.
Shiflet and Lossen agree some of their favorite finds in the collection are shots Leonard probably didn't think were significant at the time he took them. Their favorite example is an image from Keeneland on a rainy day sometime in the 1950s depicting a trio of draft horses sealing the track in the days before tractors were used.
The daughter of bloodstock agent Richard Lossen and granddaughter of trainer Joseph Lossen, Kate knew Leonard in passing during the later years of his career. She has even found a few images of her family members scattered inside the collection. As a photographer herself, Lossen has been able to see Leonard's progression as an artist through the 50 years he spent behind the camera.
“You can see him experimenting with different film, and a lot of fans can't see that,” she said. “He writes down what film he was using, and which camera, and what speeds. It's really cool to me as a fan of Tony's but also a photographer to see that evolution.”
Seeing Leonard's life's work has also been a way to get to know him as a person. Shiflet and Lossen say he had a larger than life personality. Before he became one of the best-known equine photographers in the business, Leonard was a singer, performing at Radio City Music Hall in New York alongside Adelle, even singing The Star Spangled Banner at Yankee Stadium. Lossen thinks Leonard was a natural performer, a jokester who always had something to say, and was delighted to greet people he knew out at the races – and he knew everybody.
“He was a charmer. That's pretty much the only word you can use to describe him,” said Lossen. “He had a flair for the dramatic, definitely that artistic personality, but so charming. Unless you were a groom – you can call any groom that worked with him, and they'd see him coming and say, 'I'm going to take lunch now!' I can see in the conformation shots, you can tell by the shadows the poor grooms are out there at noon, and Tony's probably made them stand there for two hours because he was such an abject perfectionist. They all loved to hang out with him otherwise, but hated to hold horses for him.”
Shiflet has been pleased with the response to the Headley-Whitney exhibit and said he has taken note of fans' requests to bring the exhibit to other racing states. It's his intent the collection should be shared, hopefully with future museum exhibits and several books. He's also hopeful the index can be used as a reference to aid people doing research or writing their own books in the future.
“This is really cool right now, but I think it'll be even more cool in another 50 years or 100 years,” said Shiflet. “This will be an interesting collection years and years after I'm gone.”
(All photos below courtesy of The Tony Leonard Collection's Facebook page.)
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