My project on my grandfather Dick Taylor and his life in harness racing ran in The New York Times last Saturday. It ran in the Sports section and got a really nice two page spread inside. Thanks to Sports picture editors Brad Smith and Becky Lebowitz and Sports Editor Joe Sexton for getting behind the project and giving it such a great display. It was the best possible home for these pictures, and it was pretty exciting for me. Even if this one is about my own grandad, it still feels like a continuation of how I see my role as a photographer- to tell the big, resonant stories in the lives of everyday folks. I am grateful to have the opportunity to continue doing that in the Times.
The piece also ran as a feature on the Lens blog, where Lens editor David Gonzalez gave my writing some serious spit and polish, thanks as well.
I took my first pictures of grandad Taylor on the farm when I went to live there for some months back in the winter of 1999. I wore the same pair of old skate shoes every day in the barn that winter, and the same quilted jacket. My friend Chris Duncan saw the photos I made then, and asked me to be in an art show he put together. It was the first time I ever showed my pictures in a public context like that. It took a long time and a winding route to make it back to the farm to take pictures. When I was going to Ohio University the last couple of years, I used the opportunity to start photographing him again. I made a short documentary about him, and then started making regular trips there to photograph. After awhile I started taking less pictures, and spending more time clearing weeds, cleaning up the barn, hitching horses. But the slower I worked, the better the photos got. It’s crazy how much I enjoy photographing there. When I show up, usually at night, first thing I do is walk into the barn and flick on the light to go see the horses like I did when I was little. The smell of them always hits me first- warm and slightly acrid, their sweat and manure and the straw dust that clings to them works it’s way into your clothes. I like the rhythms and the pace of the days, for me the smallest activities become events - him yelling up the stairs to make sure I am out of bed, the morning light shooting across the pasture into the kitchen, drinking murky tea and eating peanut butter on toast, the morning news shows. The main event is hitching and training in the morning- combing brushing picking out hooves, trying to remember how the harness goes on, giving the filly a bath and cooling her out after training. Then sitting in the living room all afternoon, both of us pretending to read while we doze off. Getting up to feed and bring in the horses in the evening. Drinking some beers and watching Charlie Rose on PBS.
Every time I go back, he reminds me that my shoes are on the steps and my jackets hanging up in the stairway, 13 years later.
My aunt Ellen that lives on the farm near him got the paper on Saturday. She played it sly, brought it in and tossed it on the couch, told him she heard that Vic had something in it today. He started thumbing through it slowly, page one on back. She tried to hint him along, “I think it’s somewhere in the middle.” She said when he got to the sports section and read the tag line, “The Life of a Harness Horseman,” he got the slightest grin on his face, then opened it up to a spread of pictures of him. Later he told her,”I am overwhelmed by my exposure.” Ha. Here is the piece that ran in the paper…
Horseman Builds Career on His Terms
By Victor J. Blue
My grandfather Richard Taylor has bred, trained and raced harness horses for more than 65 years. He is among the last of a vanishing breed of horsemen. He lived through the Depression, served in World War II and came home to start a small farm in central Indiana. From there, my mother’s father built a career as a small-time breeder and trainer, racing his own horses, living life on his own terms.
In those days, it was mostly county fair racing for Indiana-bred horses and their trainers, before the parimutuel tracks were built and the casino money swelled the sport. He found moderate success in nearby states, raising champion horses that made their mark in Chicago and Lexington, Ky. Some years he trained for other owners, at other operations. His patience with his fillies and his careful training and attention to maternal bloodlines brought him a level of success greater than the size of his small operation.
He still rises early each morning, hitches his filly, and jogs her around the dusty track once surrounded by fields. Now stately suburban homes and their manicured lawns run up to the fence posts. Clutching his stopwatch and holding the lines tight with one leg hanging down from the training cart, he feels, he counts and he listens. He works slowly, building up her speed, hoping it will peak on race day and put her in the money. He tells me: “There’s something about a horse. I don’t know who said it, but ‘The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man.’
He’s a character. Tough as nails. Polite, but with a quick temper that doesn’t put up with foolishness. Genuinely warm and interested in others, he can also be circumspect in his dealings with them. His Depression-era cast of mind keeps him from spending money on much of anything, and on his farm there is not a broken harness, a frayed halter or a punctured inner tube that cannot be fixed or saved for a rainy day.
Liberal in his politics, he reads widely and pours over The New Yorker week to week. He keeps a diary, short entries that repeat in a kind of rhythm: the filly’s fastest mile for the day, the bills that got paid, the relatives that called.
When I was a child growing up with my mom and brother at a distance from him and the farm, the horses, the races and the tall, quiet man intimidated me. When I grew up, I was fascinated by him, by the template of a future self I imagined.
When I was 25, I moved to the farm thinking I would learn to groom horses and maybe get into training. We were two stubborn bachelors, one young, one old. I started photographing him then, but after a few cold months I moved on. Eventually I became a documentary photographer and worked around the country and around the world.
Two and a half years ago, I came back and began this project because I wanted to tell the story of his passion for horses. I wanted to create a record of the man at this stage in his life. Photography is about time, and I wanted to hold on to some of it with him.
As he has aged, there have been fewer successful training seasons, but he keeps going, quietly frustrated by the physical limitations of his 84 years. He does not talk much of the future, or how many seasons he might have left. He starts every spring like he did this year, with the promise of speed and soundness. His strategy to win races is not different from his strategy for living life. Quiet and calm, he likes to be fast out of the gate, sit back in the second spot, then get out clean at the top of the stretch and blow by at the finish. After all these years and so many horses, his approach has not changed. “I want to know more about a horse tomorrow than I do today.”
This story is my exploration of my grandfather, of his passion for horses, and of what it means to be driven by the obsessions that keep us alive.