Updated on 09/18/2011 2:17AM

Showing horses in their best light


ARCADIA, Calif. - The main character in the Kurt Vonnegut novel "Bluebeard" is part of the early movement of American abstract expressionists whose paintings, laden with drips and smears, are badly misunderstood by his long-suffering wife, among others.

"You guys all paint the way you do because you couldn't paint something real if you had to," she said accusingly, hoping it would cut him to the core.

So the artist grabbed a green crayon his wife was using to make a to-do list, and proceeded to draw on the rough surface of the Sheetrock kitchen wall two perfectly realized portraits of their young sons, who were fast asleep in another part of the house. His wife was flabbergasted.

"Why don't you do that all the time?" she asked. The answer was simple.

"It's just too [bleeping] easy." the artist replied.

Katey Barrett has spent her entire career as a photographic artist stuck in a similar bind, dancing back and forth between the graphic portrayal of the horse and her personal, artistic impressions.

Her sweeping variety of equine subjects - ranging from racing Thoroughbreds to wild mustangs - lend themselves willingly to unadorned snapshots because, let's face it, there's nothing prettier than a pretty picture of a pretty horse.

Not surprisingly, Barrett can do pretty horses as good or better than any equine photographer at work today - or for the past 30 years - primarily because she is so in tune with the physical nature of the animal. Her horses are captured in slippery, blink-and-you-missed-it poses. They always appear as if they've just done something special, or are just about to. The colors are heartfelt, imbued with low-slung, available light. They all look very, very real. And for Barrett, it's easy.

Barrett's most compelling work is far different from traditional equine photography. Her inspirations are the Impressionist painters, who conveyed suggestions of their subject matter through revolutionary brush strokes and composition. Yes, that's a haystack, but not if you pick it apart.

Using aperture, exposure, and camera movement as her brushes, Barrett portrays horses and jockeys in swirling motion, their colors in full riot. The convenient lie of the perfectly focused Thoroughbred hurtling past the human eye at 35 miles per hour is debunked as a trick of technology. Barrett's still photos do the impossible. They move.

A native of northern Minnesota, Barrett came to California in the 1960's and headed right for the famed Actor's Studio in Hollywood. It was the directors, the great film stylists, who became her bedrock inspiration as a photographer.

"I wasn't the least bit interested in still photography at the time," she likes to recall. "But when I started taking pictures - it was 1971 - there I was applying all these things I'd learned watching directors and cinematographers setting their scenes."

The key to Barrett's work became the light. Everything else flows from the angle, the texture, the filtration of the available light. For Barrett, the horses can do no wrong. It is the light that betrays her.

"Can you believe this?" she'll moan, waving at a dull, dishwater sky as she descends from one of her many secret vantage points around a racetrack. "Have you ever seen such lousy light?"

One need only glance through "The Light Touch," Barrett's book of photographs, or the pages of her show horse and wild horse collections to understand anguish. More recently, though, Barrett's art has taken her into infrared photography, in which she is able to push the available light to its limits, creating ghostly landscapes of steaming horses and blinding white rails.

Barrett's work can be viewed these days on her website, . But for those who like to stand and behold the work of a true artist, the evening of Saturday, Oct. 21, needs to be circled in red. That will be opening night of a Katey Barrett exhibit, with a reception to be held in the library of the California Thoroughbred Breeders' Association offices, right across the street from Santa Anita Park.

Like most true artists, distracted by other concerns, Barrett has forgotten to enrich herself along the way. She contributes her work with regularity to the Wild Horse Sanctuary of Northern California, and to the Old Friends retirement home for racehorses in Kentucky.

Typically, the Oct. 21 event will benefit others besides Barrett. Proceeds from the sales of her displayed works, less her production costs, will be donated to the California Thoroughbred Foundation, and its work in bringing educational scholarships to the sons and daughters of backstretch personnel.

"Everyone is invited to join us for the reception that evening, beginning right after the races at five o'clock, and join in a good cause," said Rosemary Stringer of the breeders' association. "And I just love Katey's work. I'm a cat lover, and I was fortunate enough to get a photograph of a barn cat she did called 'Mr. Wonderful.' The lighting is just incredible.

"Katey told me how cats are just terrible to photograph," Stringer noted. "If they know you're doing it they either pose or run away. But this cat was completely absorbed in cleaning itself. It's so neat."

It's so Barrett.