You know that feeling when your phone storage is getting low, and you realize you have 10,000 photos on it, and you keep avoiding going through them to figure out which ones you should keep?
Multiply that by 250, and you’ll have some idea of the daunting task that faced award-winning photographer Barbara Livingston when she acquired Jim Raftery’s vast archive of horse racing negatives, all 300 boxes of them.
In 1998, Livingston acquired her first collection of negatives, those of James W. Sames III. Initially intending to buy one print, she ended up with a big box of negatives, discovering in it photographs of Triple Crown winners War Admiral (1937) and Whirlaway (1941).
“That box was full of history,” said Livingston, who grew up in East Glenville and attended Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake schools before graduating from Syracuse University with a degree in photography. “After that, I was on the lookout for people with collections of negatives that they didn’t know what to do with.”
A number of years ago, Livingston was asked if she knew how to contact the Raftery family. Raftery had been the track photographer at Hialeah Park and Garden State Park among others, and, after some digging, Livingston located his descendants in Miami. His daughter Judy Ann Bassing had her father’s negatives stored in hundreds of boxes, and when she determined that it was time for them to move on, she called Livingston, who began working with Daily Racing Form in the late 1990s and became the publication’s chief photographer in 2008.
“She expressed hope that her father’s name could be seen again,” said Livingston, the winner of six Eclipse Awards, in both photography and audio/multi-media internet categories. “With each passing generation, his name is a dimmer bell.”
It took her a U-Haul, a car and an SUV to get all the negatives up from Florida, and it took her more than a year to go through the boxes. A year ago, she spoke with the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame about an exhibition, and after a “quick and very enthusiastic response,” she began working on the exhibition that opened last Thursday.
Located in the Museum’s von Stade Gallery, the exhibit features approximately 60 images from Raftery’s decades-long career. Some of the photographs are of horses well-loved and well-known, others feature trainers whose names you’ll find in the Museum’s Hall of Fame and some are slice-of-life racetrack moments. The captions were written by Livingston and author Dorothy Ours.
Those captions do more than simply convey the subjects of the photos. They detail Raftery’s evolution as a photographer, including details about the equipment that he used. One notes that Raftery popularized the “coming back” photo of horses returning to the winner’s circle or to be unsaddled, in part by instructing jockeys how best to present themselves and their horses in those moments.
The response to the exhibit has been “so positive,” said museum director Cate Masterson.
“People who knew Jim and his family, or who worked with him, loved the exhibit,” she said. “Another woman said she knows nothing about horse racing and could stay in the gallery all day long.”
Overseen by collections manager Stephanie Luce, the exhibit is part of an initiative by the museum to bring more attention to the work of racing photographers.
“We want to honor their work,” said Masterson, “and the von Stade Gallery is a great place to do that. We hope to have more exhibits in the future for people like [long-time New York Racing Association photographer, now retired] Bob Coglianese, and, of course, Barbara herself.”
In addition to the photographs on display, Livingston and the museum have made available approximately 100 more images on the museum website. Others will continue to be added to the online collection.
Raftery died in 1994, and Livingston remembers meeting him only once, at Hialeah.
“I grew up looking at his photos,” she said. “When I met him, I knew I was standing near greatness.”
The Raftery exhibit closes on Sept. 30.