12/10/2014 3:19PM

Hovdey: Barrett photos give library greater depth of field

Keeneland Library/Barrett
Katey Barrett's photographs often convey the feel of impressionist art.

Whatever you call the opposite of buyer’s remorse, Becky Ryder’s got it. Call it acquisitor’s unbridled joy.

Ryder, director of the Keeneland Library, is celebrating the recent purchase of the Katey Barrett photographic archives. This is a big deal because a) Barrett’s images of Thoroughbred racing are inspiring, fraught with emotional content and deserving of the widest possible audience, and b) Barrett is still around to take a bow.

“I’m hanging in there,” Barrett said this week from her Los Angeles home. “They’re paying me over three years, so I’ve got to stick around at least that long.”

This is typical Barrett, who at 82 is still the wise-cracking, iconoclastic, self-effacing Minnesotan who descended upon California as a young woman intent on a career in Hollywood. She bucked the entrenched old-boy system and slid from acting to production to the camera in a succession of opportunistic turns before finding her voice, as it were, in still photography.

Except for the fact that Barrett’s work never seems to stand still, whether she’s tracking a ham like John Henry in the morning, the frenetic thrills of Santa Anita’s downhill turf course in the afternoon, or the shy herds of wild mustangs she has documented for three decades. Her work taps into an impressionist’s restless sensibilities of implied movement despite the static nature of paint on canvas or the shutter’s single click. Think “The Starry Night” by Van Gogh or the shimmering landscapes of Monet. Stand in front of them long enough, and the sky begins to whirl, the grasses wave.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

This is what happens with Barrett’s most noteworthy work, in which a vibrant image of horse and rider doing something special emerges from a giddy smear of color and light, the result of a slow shutter and a moving camera.

But that’s not all. Keeneland is now tapped into Barrett’s historic catalog of California racing, much of it embracing a period referred to these days as “golden.” In its role of preserving the documented lore of the Thoroughbred sport, the Keeneland Library now has the action-packed images beyond winner’s circles and finish lines of horses and riders who are otherwise enshrined in the racing Hall of Fame.

“One of my favorite is of Skip Away and Jerry Bailey with the pony at the Breeders’ Cup,” Barrett said. “Both riders are up, and smiling. And I swear the horse looks happy, too.”

The Barrett collection joins a Keeneland treasure trove that includes the art of Pierre “Peb” Bellocq and the archives of Daily Racing Form .

“Katey is a pioneer,” Ryder said. “She’s the first female equine photographer of note in the United States. Her collection picks up historically where our last collection ended. It’s our first cohesive West Coast-oriented collection. And it gives us our first color collection.”

Keeneland’s other photographic collections include those of Charles Christian Cook, Bert Morgan, and Skeets Meadors, as well as the photo files acquired from the now-defunct Thoroughbred Times. Cook was a renowned aerial photographer who dabbled impressively in the Thoroughbred world. Morgan made his living as a society photographer who often found his way to the racetrack, while Meadors’s Thoroughbred work was oriented more toward regional Kentucky.

Ryder has been with the Keeneland Library for 4 1/2 years. Before that, she was in charge of Preservation Services at the University of Kentucky.

“I’m a newer fan of Katey’s,” Ryder said. “When I first visited her last December, I sat at her light box for what must have been three hours looking at samples. With every one of them, I kept getting more and more awestruck.”

It can happen. Most Southern California racing fans have a rudimentary collection of Barrett images courtesy of the annual Santa Anita calender, in which her work has been featured for many years. After a while, you come to know a Barrett picture when you see one. Did any of them stand out for Ryder, in that first, intense exposure?

“I’d be hard-pressed to name a favorite,” she said. “There are not only her wonderful personality photos but also her detail work that tells the story, whether it’s a foot in a stirrup, a forelock, the hooves kicked backwards as they run. The balance of color, the balance of tone, the way the light plays off the image. Her image capture is just remarkable.”

Ryder paused.

“But I do think some of her images of Bayakoa are just amazing,” she said.

Good choice.

Ryder’s staff will be busy over the coming months creating a searchable database for the large Barrett collection. There is a planned Barrett exhibition at the library for August that will feature not only the seminal Barrett work but also some of her favorite images from her coverage of at least a dozen runnings of the Breeders’ Cup. Beyond that, there are any number of ways in which the wider world will be able to enjoy Barrett’s Keeneland collection of not only color images but black-and-white and infrared.

“I can’t wait,” Ryder said. “It’s like opening Christmas present after Christmas present.”

As for the photographer, Barrett is grateful that her work has found a home, especially now that she is winding down her shooting career because of what she calls old bones. Her trips to the track, by necessity, have decreased.

“Although,” Barrett added, “I do need to get up and get some fresh stuff of the wild mustangs.”