Through Livingston’s lens

Barbara Livingston sat criss-crossed on a photographer’s stand beyond the inner rail at Saratoga Rac
Photographer Barbara Livingston takes a photo on Friday afternoon at the Saratoga Race Course.
Photographer Barbara Livingston takes a photo on Friday afternoon at the Saratoga Race Course.

Barbara Livingston sat criss-crossed on a photographer’s stand beyond the inner rail at Saratoga Race Course, recalling a filly named Ruffian.

“She was a really famous horse and died a terrible death,” she said. “She was gone, but I still had her pictures. It was an incredibly magic realization for me. Nowadays it’s normal, but at the time I was like, ‘Here she is. She’s still here.’ ”

Livingston first picked up a camera in 1971 when her parents brought her to Saratoga. She was 10 years old at the time, but she immediately started working on her skills, even on some high-profile subjects.

She photographed Secretariat when she was 12 during his morning workout at Saratoga. Later that afternoon, the Triple Crown winner lost the Whitney Stakes. Livingston photographed Ruffian, who went on to win the Filly Triple Crown — now called the Triple Tiara — in 1975. In 1977, she snapped a shot of Seattle Slew winning the Triple Crown.

“At that moment with Ruffian right in front of me, I wrote in my diary I would be a horse racing photographer,” Livingston reminisced during a recent interview at the track.

And so she did, accepting every opportunity she could to take photo classes throughout middle and high school at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake. She then attended Syracuse University for experimental photography.

Even then, everything had an equestrian spin.

“Whatever the subject of the assignment was, I put horses in it,” Livingston said. “My professors started to get irritated, saying my focus was too tight because it was too small of a field. They said I’d never succeed because it was too hard to, but I couldn’t help it.”

Loves the challenge

Today, Livingston is chief photographer at the Daily Racing Form, the highest-circulating horse-racing publication in the country. Something, then, earned her the edge in this highly competitive field.

Maybe it’s arriving at Saratoga every morning at 5:30 to shoot workouts, and then staying for the day’s races. Maybe it’s traveling to photograph the biggest races in the country — all three Triple Crown races, the Sunland Derby, the Haskell, the Breeder’s Cup, to name a few. Maybe it’s going to California to photograph American Pharoah in a peaceful environment, showing racing fans a side of the champion they haven’t seen.

Or maybe despite all that, it’s her drive to continue improving, a daily effort to ensure tomorrow’s photos are better than today’s.

“I love the never-ending challenge of trying to see things in a way other people don’t,” she said. “I don’t want to be complacent. I want to know how good my competition is because that’s going to keep me trying to be better, whether or not I actually can. Literally every day, I wish I were better.”

This methodology keeps Livingston excited, ready to get the best shot she can.

“It’s the constant pursuit of it,” she said. “I never stop moving because I don’t want to be sitting in the photo room, have something happen and miss it.”

In the first week of Saratoga’s meet, Livingston captured a horse flipping over during a workout. Both horse and jockey walked away from the incident without injury, but she said she thrives on those shots, the ones she only comes across every once in a while.

Constant chase

The chase is constant for Livingston, as she’ll photograph almost any horse that goes by, ensuring if the Daily Racing Form needs a picture of a specific horse, she has it. She added her work at the publication is special because it considers horses with potential instead of focusing on results.

“It looks ahead at all the horses that might become something,” she said. “It gives me a daily opportunity to really do something that’s important.”

This mission pairs well with the tradition of racing in Saratoga. Though Livingston spends some winter months in Florida, she recently bought a home in Malta and continues to call the Spa city track home base.

“We’re just really lucky here that the quality of racing is remarkable,” she said. “I don’t care what level they run, it’s just fun to see them all, especially because here you’re first introduced to the horses as 2-year-old babies. It’s fun to try and guess which ones will be good.”

Though fun, Livingston’s work is also highly professional. She’s frequently complimented for the incredible details she captures, down to every muscle and vein on the horses. The images also seem to jump out of frame, with crisp lines and vibrant colors.

But it’s not photo editing that make the photos stand out from the rest.

“It’s all me,” Livingston said when asked about her secret. “I try my best to make the original the same as the actual image, with basic cropping and minor editing. Editorially, I have to because I don’t do what I do to deceive.”

Beyond the early mornings, the travel, the skill — both inherent and developed — and the job itself, photographing horses is, first and foremost, Livingston’s life.

“People say they have a passion, but I say I have more than that,” she said. “It’s an obsession. I’m not sure it’s good, but it’s there and it’s me. I love it. I live for it.”

For more on Barbara Livingston and to see her work, find her on Twitter @DRFLivingston.

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