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20 November 2017

So what's next?

I wrote a number of weeks ago on whether it was in the best interests of racing for Victorian officials to mandate such tough and restrictive policies governing whether a person may take a photograph while they are a spectator at the races (and indeed the issue goes wider as it relates to how an industry photographer might make a living).

The plight of the independent thoroughbred industry photographer was well documented this time last year when we faced the most serious threat to our existence in the 25 odd years that I have been photographing thoroughbreds in Australia.  Happily we were able to work out a solution and I remain extremely grateful for the way RVL have supported our contribution which the racing and breeding industry values so highly.  I was also so grateful for the tremendous support shown to us by many key players in the Australian industry who said our roles were vital.  However it is accurate to say that many challenges remain.

I've had numerous people approach me, both in person and via electronic methods, after reading my previous Blog post.  Their responses were overwhelmingly supportive.  And I stress again that it isn't actually clear cut what the rules are because I have continued to observe many amateur photographers around the course with their cameras following that incident.  Many of the photographers I have seen appear to be using the standard 70-200mm lens and they've been allowed in and I think that this is a very good thing.

It isn't certain what the actual rules are because neither racebook from Caulfield on 2 September or Moonee Valley on 9 September mentioned anything specific what equipment is in or out in their racebooks and we haven't seen anything on a noticeboard outside the entry turnstiles.

MVRC Racebook from the 9 September 2017 Feehan Stakes meeting (err - Dato Tan Stakes)

The MRC were proactive in their approach and one of their more senior representatives called me directly about the issue.  I won't go in to the specifics of the conversation  but I appreciated the fact they called and were keen to discuss what had happened and genuinely wanted to apologise to the gentleman in question. 

The clear consensus among everyone who spoke to me about the issue is that racing is an industry in decline with falling participation and crowd figures.  There is a strong belief that the imposition of harsh and restrictive conditions of entry will detract from the experience and aside from being completely unnecessary they will also actively discourage patrons from attending race meetings in person.  It is my firm belief that 99% of race fans who take images using their own equipment do only use them for personal use and in my opinion any medium they display these images on would constitute good positive (and free!) promotion for an industry struggling for market share and interest.  And in the event an amateur photograph does produce an image of commercial quality  - again I think that this is fantastic.  Well done them!!  Perhaps you might like to approach me for a job one day?  That of course is presuming I still have a functional business!

One of the comments I made to the MRC representative was this so called huge 'black market' of illegal print sales is largely fictional because in my own experience I could count on one hand the number of enquiries I receive from would be buyers seeking to utilitise this 'black market' in the first place.  Put simply interest it would appear demand for products from the horse racing is low and this is the reality we currently have to work with. And I wish it wasn't the case. I wish lots of people and horse loving children wanted to buy photographs of famous racehorses to put on their walls because it would mean the thoroughbred was universally popular. 

So what is the future of equine photography?  It isn't an exact science and the world isn't overflowing with well skilled horse photographers and some of us have been around for awhile.  I don't like ordinary work filled with technical flaws  and I think that good equine photography doesn't come easily to all photographers.

So where will the next generation will come from?  Who will come after us?  I get people approach me through email, or Facebook, or Twitter, etc, asking me for advice and for information and currently I would be lying if I said to each one "yes, you can have a thriving career as a thoroughbred photographer (or as a photographer in general!) - let's make a time to chat!"  I'd love to be able to say this to them and to encourage them but the way things stand I'd be lying to them and this makes me sad.

Which poses the question:  What capacity do I have to mentor and counsel a new talent on the subtleties of good equine photography?

The problem is two fold.

First (and this pertains to work conducted on the racetrack) I have to accredit a fledgling photographer in order to impart some of the knowledge I have built up over the past 25 years.  In Victorian this is now significantly more difficult than it was when I started out - and it wasn't easy back then! 

Second, my business must be able to generate enough additional income to pay them.  This is (1) because I don't believe people should work for free - that's called slavery right??!!! and (2) because modern photography has become a capital hungry industry and our overheads (ie insurance, tax, travel, data storage and backup, etc, etc, etc) are very high.
These are some of the hurdles:

  1. Economically times are tough in the racing and breeding industry.  While there is a lot of money to be made the thoroughbred industry is to a large degree made up of many small participants with small marketing budgets who are struggling to get by,
  2.  Too many photographers give their work away for free or for next to nothing and this is exacerbated by users of imagery exploiting wanna-be photographers with tempting lines such as "we won't pay you anything for your work or your expenses, but heck we'll give you a free credit and lots of exposure!!".  I wonder whether they say the same thing to their electricity company, or their CEO, or whether the person making these outrageous statements turn up for work each day for free and out of the goodness of their heart???
  3.  A huge influx of previously full time employed newspaper photographers enter the freelance market after being retrenched by News Ltd, Fairfax and Getty images over the past 4 years.  These photographers used to earn GOOD money working full time with good entitlements and they are all highly skilled.  However many of them are all now engaged as "contractors" on minimal day rates without ownership of their images.  Essentially they are doing the same work for a fraction of the income.  In my eyes this is a bad deal and we've steered clear of it.  However many photographers do accept these rates which goes a long way towards legitimising the practice, and
  4. There are strong regulations now in Victoria which dictate which work I can 'compete' and which I cannot, regardless of my skill or standing within the industry.  I hasten to stress that I have a good relationship with RVL and they work with me but the constraints are still there.  In particular I am  not allowed to expand my team of photographers beyond 2 at any meeting which puts me at a competitive disadvantage should I want to expand and means we are outnumbered, sometimes 5 to 1 by Racing Photos, Getty Images and AAP.  Despite this I still believe we output strong image quality and a diverse range of imagery but sometimes it feels like we are swimming against a very strong tide with our hands tied behind our back.  So even if I wanted to take on a 3rd photographer at present I am not allowed to and this seems unfair.

Whilst I can take presently take an upcoming photographer to a stud farm and teach them things away from the hustle and bustle of the racetrack, the only place they will obtain the necessary skills for shooting at the races is at the racetrack itself.  It's a simple philosophy much akin to the advice my old German dressage mentor used to say during our dressage lessons "the canter will only improve if you actually canter".  As a side note - I miss those days!!  A schedule of constant intra and interstate travel, children and an ageing mare whose spectacularly faulty conformation is causing soundness issues combined with my current inability to afford a new horse has meant that dressage has fallen to one side.

My daughter is a case in point.  She's grown up surrounded by horses and within the industry.  She comes to the yearling sales with me, lots of people know her, comment on how interested she is and how dedicated she is during the Inglis Easter Yearling sale she comes with me to.  She worked all 3 days of the yearling sale year and produced some terrific shots and was suitably rewarded with a shopping trip and some pretty cool clothes.  However what's my capacity to teach her to become a racing photographer?

The newspaper industry was filled with photographers who followed in the footsteps of family members (and sad to say these days are probably over too).  I'm not saying my daughter will want to embrace the industry however if she did she would have a far greater 'step up' than I did when I entered because I came from nowhere and knew no one.  But the question remains - if she wanted to, can I take her under my wing and guide her and teach her?  As things stand I would be saying 'yes pursue a career in the industry, it's great but for goodness sake don't be a photographer unless you want to starve!'

Jessica has always loved of horses (although possibly her interest has waned - possibly because she has seen first hand the struggles).  Her attention to detail is keen and I hope eventually tries for some of the excellent scholarship programs like Darley/Godolphin Flying Start.  Having said that she is currently thriving in a Performing Arts capacity having just joined the esteemed Australian Girls Choir and we went to her very first annual concert last night so there's a bit of competition for the racing industry!

With the Legend Redoute's Choice.  She's not scared of horses and has a lovely touch with them.

With Snitzel at feeding time.  No fear.

Still on the feed run helping Mitchell and this time pictured with beautiful Flying Spur who lives in retirement at Arrowfield Stud.  We are back up in December and Jessica is saying "can I help Mitch feed the stallions??"
These are some of the pictures Jessica has taken.  She's not very old but she's good.  She pays attention and she knows her subject and I cannot stress the importance of the latter enough!!  If she wanted to be part of thoroughbred photography would she have a future?

Merovee.  A bay colt by Frankel out of More Strawberries who solld for $1.6m at the 2016 Inglis Easter Yearling Sale.  Find fault, if you can.  She sits with her catalogue, diligently watching the lots and watching and capturing for the ones I have marked out and anything else that sells well that I haven't (or if she just likes the look of them).

Again, find fault if you can. 

My children will one day inherit my valuable photo library and be its custodians.  I hope they will receive assistance from the industry to guide them.  My recent brush with death reminds us all that none of us are immortal and that fortune favours the prepared!

Racetrack and equine photography requires a different set of skills to other photography.  Photographing horses requires patience, skill, and appreciation for the industry and for bloodlines and for correctness.  It also requires a knowledge of what works, what doesn't and as with many things, if an image makes the subject look ordinary I don't care how clever you think you are, it's still a bad image and the only action is to press the delete key.

Racetrack photography requires instinct, knowledge and a certain amount of what I call "corporate" historical knowledge.  It requires you to be able to think on your feet and to be able to adapt when you can't control a situation and or direct the horse like you can when working with them one on one during a controlled shoot.  It also requires you to be brave, to trust your instincts and to back yourself to make the right call and not miss the winner in a situation where the complexion of a race can change in the blink of an eye.

So I pose the question again:  does it really affect 'official' photo sales if a person takes a camera into the racecourse?  My belief is that it absolutely doesn't.  Also I repeat my belief that photography is a form of art.  It is my opinion that image selection is highly personal and different photographers see and therefore depict the same scene differently because we all have different 'eyes'.  Also not all people will like the same image.  As a result if you are only able to select images from a single perhaps 'official' source they are not going be able to economically produce every single image that the industry will need or that everyone will like. It is important to preserve and protect the size and diversity of the image pool.  I don't believe that a single source of images is the way to go because it does just that - it reduces the scope of the available image pool.

Competition is so important to the preservation of excellence.  Photography is no different.  'Official' photographers will grow lazy and complacent if they are the only ones allowed to sell images. This is no different to the manufacture of camera equipment.  The competition between Nikon and Canon is healthy.  They force each other to innovate and improve and we photographers are the winners out of this competition.  Recently some of the Getty photographers have been able to try to try the new Sony A9 mirror-less camera.  Personally we couldn't possibly afford to change systems because the cost of the  new lenses would be prohibitive however my point is that the very existence of this new camera forces Nikon and Canon to innovate and raise the bar further and it is my expectation that they will soon release something similar and that we will soon be able to purchase a mirrorless Nikon camera that will perform equally as well as the Sony model and we will be able to use it with our Nikon lenses.

I read many comments on social media attacking professional photographers, saying we are mean spirited, territorial and aggressive.  I don't like to think we are like this but I think that the real problem lies in the fact that our pool is shrinking and we still have livings to earn and the mouths to feed are still hungry.  Today's world is image hungry yet many organisations and businesses are either laying photographers off or they are trying to obtain their work for free or next to free.  Full time photographers often compete with people who have other 'real' jobs and therefore it doesn't matter to them whether they sell an image because their next meal on the table isn't reliant on being able to sell what they took that day.  I don't have that luxury because I don't have a 2nd job and if I can't sell my imagery I don't have a business. 

A quite moment with my beautiful Arrowfield Stud stallion Dundeel.  I love horses and I love photographing them.

Winx's trainer Chris Waller

Future generations.

Maurice.  He is an example of succession planning and ensuring the future is strong, and he stands at Arrowfield which is an organisation that is known for its forward and progressive thinking.

Beautiful Winx. 

The next generation.  They are important.
Back to my original point about the dimishing fan base of racing, the attached images demonstrate that certainly outside of the main "carnival" days, racing spectators are thin on the ground while many of the mainstream population haven't never heard of a good racehorse's name.  It's difficult to justify why a sector of our industry should even consider implementing policies that will discourage in any way the people who do actually want to attend in person from attending.

There were good horses running at Moonee Valley on Saturday here in Victoria.  Yet as this image demonstrates the stands are empty.  Can we afford to turn people away?
If Winx and Black Caviar have taught us anything it is that a champion racehorse and a love of a horse is the key to our industry thriving and this is how we must market our industry.  Arrogate and American Pharoah in the United States, as well as Frankel in the UK also support this argument.  When we did some work for Juddmonte photographing their stallions in July I was thrilled to see how many people called in to visit Frankel and how popular he is.  If you are on Twitter it's very common seeing people post pictures of themselves posing with the champon at Banstead Manor Stud and it's wonderful of Juddmonte Farm to accommodate this so generously.

The might champion FRANKEL.  Photographed for Juddmonte Farm.  June 2017.  One of my peers on our return said "but you got to photograph Frankel...   FRANKEL......" and he meant it.
Australian racing is currently gripped by the juggernaut of another champion racemare who is re-writing the record books.  She's threatening to overtake champion Black Caviar's winning streak (although Nelly will always hold the unbeaten record, bless her) as she extended her winning run  to 22 successive wins in the 2017 Cox Plate) and Europe is doing their best to entice her overseas.  Personally I would love to see her go to Europe.

On a personal note I will take the masses of Winx-crazy crowds over the somewhat unattractive 'party culture' crowd that tends to flock to Flemington during Cup Week.  Yes, it's good to see crowds at the races but the purist in me believes strongly that these massive and mostly drunken crowds care little for the sport or the horse itself and there's something slightly unattractive about this.  I think they should be going because of a love of the thoroughbred.  If that makes me old fashioned then so be it.

Trackwork - dawn.  Tuesday before the 2017 Cox Plate.
Post race - isn't this great homage to the horse

Theatre.  Emulating my hero Kingston Town.  Great remote shot from Darren.



Winx.  Sunrise - 15 October 2017.

Where Legends are Made.....
On this final point I'll leave you with a video I've just discovered made by esteemed American photographer Barbara D Livingston on her hero the immortal Man o'War.  Its stirring and says everything about the magnificence of the thoroughbred.  Our Australian conterpart is Phar Lap and I used to make similar pilgrimages to see his exhibit at the Melbourne Musuem and read on him prolifically.  One of my greatest objections to the 2016 demolition of the Flemington Grandstand because "Phar Lap ran in front of it" in that famous scene when he arrived late before winning the 1930 Melbourne Cup.

I hope you take the time to watch this video.  It's great and on a personal note is was really moving to visit and stand at his new grave site when we were in Kentucky in 2015: 

Chasing the Ghost of Man o'War

This is what horse racing is all about.  Champion and immortal thoroughbreds.

The Kentucky Horse Park also has great commemorations to the "other" Big Red - Secretariat.

I used to pretend to be Phar Lap or The Black when I was a child too.  I read prolifically about horses and thoroughbreds.  My Black Stallion series of books are still my bookshelf.  They are tattered and some of the pages are falling out.  Like Barbara I've been photographing the Australian thoroughbred for many years and I've chased many champions and if I could go back in time it would be Phar Lap I would go back to and I've spent countless hours pouring over photographs of him and imagining what it would have been like to photograph him.  His statue peers out above you imperiously as you approach the front gates of Flemington Racecourse.  Phar Lap was called the "Wonder Horse", "Red Terror", "Bobby" and it's kind of nice that he shared the nickname "Big Red" with two of the greatest American thoroughbreds in Man o'War and Secretariat.  I remember waiting impatiently outside the theatre in Canberra waiting for it to be time to go in when both the Phar Lap and Black Stallion movies were released in cinemas.

Sadly the tangible memories of many of our great Australian champions are also gone.  Bart Cummings' old Flemington stable which housed many of his champions was sold and demolished.  There were some parts of it kept but it will never be the same as being able to walk through the doors of the old stables.  The old Epsom training course is no longer, closed years ago and redeveloped as residential housing.  There is a street named Manikato Avenue though and that's pretty great.

This is all that's left of the old Epsom Training Centre at Mentone.

Here at home in Balnarring where I live I often drive part Kingston Park Stud where the mighty black horse Kingston Town lived and trained out of.  The day after Winx emulated The King I stopped by the gate to take a snapshot of it and to reflect on a rainy day when I was 14 or 15 and I stood under the huge pine trees in the corner of his paddock when I met my hero for the first time.  
Our job is to preserve the memories of our champion racehorses, stallions and broodmares so that future generations can learn about them.
Taken the day after Winx's 3rd Cox Plate victory emulating my Black Horse.  I stopped by his gate to tell him it was ok after being with her that morning at the beach.

With "The King", or "The Black Horse" as Malcolm Johnstone used to call him.  The immortal Kingston Town who also loved to hang onto his leadrope.
Kingston Town and me - 1986.
Horse books and the sign my children made me on my return home from our trip photographing stallions for the Aga Khan, Juddmonte, the Irish National Stud and Haras d'Etreham.
The Black Stallion book series.