Photographer captures the other side of the racetrack
At the beginning of “Backside,” a slim volume of nearly 50 black-and-white photographs depicting daily stable life at the Del Mar Racetrack, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club President Joe Harper writes that photographer Helen Montgomery-Drysdale’s work stands as a testimony to the love affair between horse and human.
He also writes that the photographs in Drysdale’s book “capture the core of this special place,” a place where groomers and trainers work but the public rarely sees what’s known as the Backside.
All shot simply and candidly, many of Drysdale’s photographs are arresting. One of the book’s photographs portrays a worker snoozing on a torn couch after a long day; another is of a goat named Nancy nosing a sleek thoroughbred housed in his stall.
Yet others show roosters pecking in the dirt near the stables, workers snacking in the Backside cafeteria during a race, or a pitbull on a leash guarding a stable worker’s quarters. There is even one captioned “Radio Ears” of a typical white hood equipped with a radio used to calm a nervous horse.
“They (the photos) show the general public what goes on with the lives of these horses, from their bath to eating a peppermint,” added Drysdale’s constant companion Dayna Carroll on a recent tour of the stables. “It is the only way to preserve and protect the animals.”
Drysdale says that the photography in her book has absolutely nothing to do with the races and everything to do with the animals.
“I never go to the races,” she said. “I’ve never bet on a horse.”
A long-time resident of Del Mar, Drysdale said she has been using her camera to document what goes on “behind the scenes” at the Del Mar Racetrack for more than 20 years.
And in all that time she has never seen anyone ever remotely mistreat an animal there. “They are all so kind,” she said. “It’s so quiet and peaceful here.”
Never shooting in color or in digital, Drysdale said she never poses her photos or manipulates the images in any way.
“Color cretinizes the subject. It dwarfs it,” she said with total conviction during a recent interview at her home in Del Mar. Many of the walls in her home are graced with her portraits of legendary stars of film and music such as Ginger Rodgers and Louis Armstrong. There are also framed portraits of Burt Lancaster, Carol Channing, Tab Hunter, Vincent Price and others.
“People look at the color and not the subject … and it doesn’t last. Look at Gone With the Wind … color film fades. Who needs it?”
Drysdale said she continues to use instead an old 35-millimeter Nikon Rolleicord camera, a camera not unlike those she learned to use while working at Impact Photos for Tex and Jinx McCrary in New York City back in the 1950s. At that time, she wrote captions for the firm’s photos, learning about different cameras and working in the darkroom on the side.
Today, she has her film developed and printed by photography labs, which, she says, are still “artisans.”
“Digital is to photography like rock ‘n’ roll is to music,” she said.
A graduate of the Bishops School in La Jolla, Drysdale returned to the area to open her own public relations office after she left Impact Photos. Then, in the 1960s, she worked as director of advertising and public relations with the La Jolla Playhouse before moving to Del Mar in 1971.
Drysdale’s next book project is titled “Signs of the Times.” It includes provocative images of urban decay and homelessness.
“I take photos of everything,” she said. “Something is good when you have a good education and the photograph relates to what you are thinking.”
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