Photographer Juliet Harrison describes herself as “your typical horse crazy kid.” Perhaps atypically, she knows exactly when that horse craziness hit. “When I was five years old,” she recalled recently by phone from her home in the Hudson Valley, “I had a babysitter who gave me a picture book of horse breeds. I still have it.
“I grew up in Levittown, on Long Island, and I was never around horses, but I used to pore over that book. When I got a little older, my parents sent me to riding camp, where I learned to ride hunters and jumpers, and to drive horses. But by the time I was 15, that was it. I wasn’t around horses again until I was 40. I took a 25-year hiatus, but I never fell out of love with them.”
Similarly, Harrison’s life as a photographer evolved, only recently combining with her interest in horses. Harrison graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and worked at a variety of jobs – teaching at a day care center, working retail in bookstores – until age 30, when she and her then-husband went to graduate school together. He studied architecture; she studied photography, earning a master’s degree.
She and her family were living in Red Hook, not far from the fair grounds and the barns for standardbred horses. “When my son was an infant, I’d take him for walks to the barn and to meet the horses. When he got older, I offered him riding lessons; he rode for a little while before he lost interest, and I realized that it was really me who wanted to ride, not him.”
She took lessons for three years, buying her first horse at 43 and riding three times a week. She did that for about 10 years, and in 2004, her riding and photography worlds collided.
She joined some online equine art communities, which is where she met Linda Shantz, whom Harrison describes as an “ex-rider and equine painter, specifically of Thoroughbreds.”
She and Shantz, along with other equine artists from their online community, meet once a year for an extended weekend in Saratoga, which was Harrison’s first significant experience with the races.
“I’d been to Saratoga once or twice, and I remember watching Secretariat win the Triple Crown on TV, but really, I wasn’t into the racetrack at all. Everything I know about the track has come in the last four years at Saratoga,” she said.
Harrison’s first book of racing photography, Track Life in Saratoga Springs, came out of these visits. “I decided that I was going to try to say something about what that experience is like for me. My camera is my voice, and I try to create a visual documentary of my experiences when I go, to show other people what I see,” she explained. “I don’t try to tell stories, I don’t interact with people; I just try to stay invisible and watch.”
Harrison photographs in black and white, which initially proved difficult at the track. “It took me two years to figure it out,” she said, “and last year, I felt like I’d finally hit it. When I got back from that weekend and saw the photographs I shot, I really wanted to share them, to share my experience of Saratoga with as many people as I could, and the best way to do that was in a book.”
Track Life in Saratoga Springs presents images of Harrison’s weekend at the track, on the backstretch, and the sales. There are few actions shots because, Harrison said, they don’t come out well in black and white. And, she explained, “What happens at the track and in racing is not the time that happens during the race itself: it’s the time before and after the race, the time that so many people put in, the tremendous attention to detail, that make horseracing.
“I’m hoping to appeal to a combination of people who are as fascinated by the track as I am, people interested in horses, especially Thoroughbreds, people interested in the track as a sporting event.
“For me, racing is about all the prep work and all the training and teaching and communication between the jockey and the horse and the groom and the horse and the trainers. To me, that’s the stuff that’s fascinating about the track.”
Note: an earlier version of this post included incorrect information about where Ms. Harrison lives and the nature of the online communities that she joined. Track Life is her second book of equine photography, and first on racing.