01/03/2013 2:06PM

Santa Anita: Photographer Katey Barrett captures turf course with undeniable style

Katey Barrett
Racing photographer Katey Barrett has long been synonymous with historic Santa Anita Park, particularly the track’s unique downhill turf course, captured here with Barrett's signature use of light, color, and motion.

The name Katey Barrett has long been synonymous with two things: excellence in equine photography and historic Santa Anita Park, particularly the track’s unique downhill turf course. Generations of West Coast racing fans have come to appreciate her quirky, astonishingly creative one-of-a-kind style . . . a masterful artistry, fusing light, color, motion, and imagination.

On Jan. 23, 1954, 12 optional claimers walked single file up a wooded hillside in the shadow of the San Gabriel mountain range, to the top of Santa Anita Park’s new turf chute. Although the course had debuted a month earlier, this was the first time horses and riders would be asked to negotiate the entire 1 3/4-mile span. Before the gates blew open at approximately 3:24 p.m., five world-class jockeys had a brief, perhaps surreal moment to contemplate something they had never before seen − a steep, undulating, roller-coaster descent, complete with right- and left-hand turns, and an unexpected flash across a dirt track, before leveling out onto a flat, grassy oval. Eddie Arcaro guided Adaro to victory in that hell-bent, first-of-a-kind thrill-ride, leaving in his wake fellow future Hall of Famer’s Johnny Longden, Jack Westrope, Bill Shoemaker, and Eric Guerin.

Santa Anita’s turf course was formally dubbed “El Camino Real” − loosely translated as “The Royal Highway” − a presciently apt name in that a procession of equine royalty, from Round Table to John Henry, would grace its slope through ensuing decades. But informally, and affectionately, it has been known to Southern California racing fans as “The Hill.”

A world apart

Construction on the Camino Real began in 1953, just as a young woman some 2,000 miles and a universe away was trying to make sense of her own life. Though the chute and the girl would not meet for many years, fate was serendipitously waiting in the wings to bring them together.

Katey Barrett had grown up in the northeast Minnesota mining hamlet of Hibbing, the daughter of a dentist and a housewife. It was, and remains, a small, unostentatious outpost, a place that Bob Dylan might have envisioned in his “North Country Blues,” a plaintive ballad about a slowly dying town. And yet, Hibbing managed to transcend its humble place in the world to provide a launching point for an unusual number of success stories, among them: Manson gang prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi; baseball Hall of Famer Roger Maris; Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson; wine mogul Robert Mondavi; and an artsy, avant-garde boy named Robert Zimmerman . . . better known later as Bob Dylan.

The mid-1940s was a time of Frank Sinatra and bobby sox . . . of teen girls who segued smoothly and quickly from high school to secretarial school, or, more often, from bobby-soxers to “happy homemakers,” who raised families and dutifully obeyed their anointed male authority figures. That was life’s blueprint in the Barrett household, though Katey had other ideas.

From early on she marched emphatically to her own drummer, playing piano like a virtuoso one day and loping like a wolf through the Minnesota backwoods the next. Musically gifted, artistic and spirited, comedic by nature, Barrett was determined not to suffocate under the strict gender standards of post-World War II America.

Bright lights, big city

She managed to dodge Catherine Gibbs’s Secretarial School by enduring a family-mandated compromise. At St. Catherine’s College in St. Paul, she agreed, grudgingly, to take education courses along with her beloved musical studies, so she could teach when all else “failed.”

“In those days, you did what your parents told you to do,” Barrett says. “But if I had known then what I know now, I’d have said, ‘I love you guys, but I’m outta here,’ and I would have figured some way to go to a music conservatory. I can’t tell you how much I loved music. Even now, if I made enough money as a photographer, there would be a Steinway in my living room.” She has no piano, Steinway or otherwise.

When Barrett saw a touring company performance of the musical comedy “The Pajama Game,” a light-bulb illuminated for the restless young woman.

“It was like somebody had tapped me on the shoulder and said: ‘See it, toots? See where you belong?’ ”

Barrett, with the similarly tall and funny musical star Carol Channing as a model in her mind’s eye, left the iron-belt forever, headed for the bright lights of Hollywood. She played piano, ukulele, guitar. She scrubbed for work, taught horseback riding, and sang folk songs at children’s summer camps, performed nightclub comedy for virtually nothing. Her luck turned when an acquaintance helped her land a coveted room in the Studio Club, “a boarding house for kids wanting to get into show business.” The “Club,” a chaperoned all-girl dormitory established in 1916 by legendary director Cecil B. DeMille, would at one time or another house such luminaries as Marilyn Monroe, Kim Novak, and author Ayn Rand, as well as Barrett.

Musical comedy was her initial goal and she went at it with determination, enrolling in the Desilu Comedy Workshop and picking up bit parts on television series.

“At one point, I got a job on ‘My Three Sons,’ ” Barrett says. “The producer saw me at the workshop, took a shine to me, and wrote in a part for me on the show.

“From there, I did a comedy bit on ‘Bonanza.’ I had a scene with two of the brothers [Adam and ‘Little Joe’ Cartwright], and wardrobe had me dress up like [the third brother] Hoss − I was supposed to be Hoss’s girlfriend. I was picking up logs, the guys were trying to find Hoss, and I was saying, ‘I don’t know where he is.’ The writers put this shtick in where I picked up a big fence rail, turned around, and knocked them over with it. It was just kind of stupid.

“I was green, so green . . . and scared to death. No confidence, no self-esteem. Finally, the production manager [John Stephens] from ‘My Three Sons’ called to see whether I was getting any work. He knew I was sharp and asked if I’d like a job as his secretary. For $150 a week, which to me was a lot of money then, I went to work for him. He was one of the best guys in the business and he taught me so much about production.”

The urge to do comedy still burned, and in 1967 Barrett accepted an uncredited part in the Don Knotts film “The Shakiest Gun in the West.” The comedic character actor played a dental student, Barrett a stubborn patient who refused to open her mouth.

“It was a stitch,” she says, “but it was my last acting job. I could do some funny stuff, but I really wasn’t very good.”

There was a glass ceiling for women in Hollywood during the 1960s, especially for behind-the-scenes jobs; they were generally relegated to secretarial or assistant status, regardless of their abilities. Barrett’s boss, John Stephens, came to believe his protégé should be an exception to that rule, that she had talent enough to someday sit in a producer’s office or director’s chair. Her current studio offered no opportunities for growth, so Stevens recommended her to Billy Woodfield and Alan Balter, head writers for a new TV series called “Mission Impossible.” They interviewed and promptly hired her − as a production secretary.

“But it wasn’t like being in an office,” Barrett explains. “By then, I had a tremendous production background and that’s why they hired me. . . . We became a real team. I eventually worked with them on scripts, like a story editor.

During “Mission Impossible,” Barrett’s interests gradually transitioned from acting to directing. Its stars, Barbara Bain and Martin Landau, helped her gain entrance to the famed Actors Studio directing unit, where cutting-edge, experimental work was being done. There, she decided that if she ever directed a real film, it would behoove her to learn about camera work − to understand the craft, know the language, to be able to speak intelligently with cinematographers.

Accidental photographer

“I went out and bought a really cheap 35-millimeter Sears camera and started playing around with it. Some of the actors needed publicity photos, and their agents basically wanted a passport-type picture . . . but I shot as if we were doing a film and I was directing them. I did a lot of horizontal, because that’s what movies are about. If you look at a shot horizontally, the way you’d see it on screen where it’s really tight on their face, you won’t see the whole face. You may not see the top of their head, or underneath their chin, maybe you’re going for the eyes. And I loved back-lighting, side-lighting. It was dramatic and gave more depth to an image than flat light. Basically, I was flying by the seat of my pants.”

The actors loved her work; the agents did not. Barrett would not compromise.

She started talking to different photographers, listening, watching, learning about f-stops and shutter speeds, then incorporating what she’d gleaned into her own fledgling style. When actress Janis Paige asked her to photograph her show jumper, Barrett’s life took an unexpected turn.

She caught on quickly in the show world, but didn’t quit her day job − not at first. Early clients included model-actress Jennifer O’Neill, movie heartthrob Tab Hunter, and television star Beverly Garland.

“That’s how I began,” she says of her initial foray into freelance photography. “People started wanting me to do private shoots, with their kids and their horses. I’d go out there like Madam Director, setting up the shot, fussing over the light. Some people hated that. They’d say, ‘Katey, just take the picture!’ And I’d say, ‘No, the light’s not right!’ That’ll be on my gravestone.

“At a jumping event, I’d follow the horses through the lens over an entire course, the way you’d look through a motion picture camera. Instinctively, I’d see what I wanted, press the button, then move on. It was like a freeze-frame in a film. I’d shoot them jumping, galloping, or coming off the field after a round. I had to teach myself to shoot vertically, because sometimes you have to go vertical. I’d consider the background, the lighting − not ‘setup’ lighting, but natural light. [Over time,] I began using different techniques − slow-shutter, the blurries, the streakies. . . . It’s just the way I saw things.”

At the central California Ram-Tap Horse Trials one year, Barrett was introduced to the father of one of the riders. A prominent television producer Ed Friendly (“Laugh-In,” “Little House on the Prairie”) also was a big fan of racing − he later would be the driving force in creation of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. Friendly eventually invited the photographer to join his family for a morning at Santa Anita, maybe snap a few pictures. She did, and never left.

Barrett was drawn from the outset to the track’s magnificent turf chute, where she would become a mainstay − a familiar form ducking under the rail, disappearing into the hillside woods, shooting through trees and flowers. Light, color, and motion were her muses, and nobody could capture their essence better than she.

“Every photographer has their own style,” she says. “Mine is the use of lighting and the mirror lens. Most people today don’t bother with them; they’re kind of clunky and old. But they create such incredible backgrounds.”

And what exactly is a mirror lens? “I couldn’t begin to explain it. I can’t tell you the technical stuff. If I got into that, I could probably never shoot the way I have. Basically, I focus on the subject; everything in front and back is out of focus.”

In a digital world, Barrett remains an unapologetic fan of film photography. Will she ever go the other route?

“Never say never, but I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. I might play with it a bit, but for anything serious, I’d shoot film. To me, the quality’s different, the color’s better − particularly with how I shoot. I won’t rattle off a bunch of images with a motor drive. I’m not interested in ‘getting’ the event, or the kinds of shots needed for newspapers and magazines. My way of shooting has always been different, partly because I wasn’t aware of what you needed to have.”

From her hillside aerie, Katey Barrett has witnessed up close many of the world’s great turf horses as they barreled down Santa Anita’s royal highway. One, in particular, stands out in her mind above all others. It was the character of John Henry that captured her imagination, even more than his perennial excellence over that challenging course.

“I don’t know what it was about him,” she reflected recently. “Maybe his personality. He could be the grumpiest person in life. He’d hang his head out the stall door with such a sour look on his face. But put a saddle on him, put a jockey up and send him to post, he was an entirely different horse. I don’t know if it was a camera thing or not, but I’m telling you, when he came out of that paddock, he was so full of himself. Everyone on God’s green earth would be standing there with a camera, click-click-clicking away . . . and he would just stop, look around. Even in the morning, that’s something he always did. I swear he knew.”

Going strong

Barrett is 80 years old now and going strong. She never left Hollywood, at least not in a physical sense − she resides there still. It was the male-dominated studio system she left behind, just as she had once fled the confines of small-town America and 1940s expectations. In so doing, Katey Barrett set her artistic spirit free.

She is not as agile today as she once was at darting under rails or scampering up hillsides, but she still visits her old racetrack haunts, most especially, “The Hill.” On any given afternoon at Santa Anita Park, one might notice a woman in the distance, camera equipment in tow, setting up to create photographic magic as only she can do.

Most great artists do not learn their craft from how-to manuals. Barrett taught herself, relying always on instinct over the technical side. Her work remains evergreen, thoughtful, ethereal . . . soft, sharp, brilliant, muted, blazing with color . . . breathtaking, and undeniably her own.

Barrett's book on the downhill turf course

“The Hill: 30 Years of Photographing Santa Anita’s Unique Downhill Turf Course” by Katey Barrett
Hardcover, 8 1/2 x 14 inches, heavy matte stock, 102 pages
Color illustrations, all shot with film
To order: www.kateybarrett.com/book.html