The Downs at Albuquerque
“The tales that Doctor Parcival told George Willard began nowhere and ended nowhere. Sometimes the boy thought they must all be inventions, a pack of lies. And then again he was convinced that they contained the very essence of truth.”
-Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
One of my most vivid memories is of ponying a race horse around the exercise track at Arlington Park outside of Chicago in 1972. I was almost eighteen. After having survived the ride, I was offered a job working on the backside as a hot walker, but my mother said no. Actually I think she said, “No. You’ll run off with a South American jockey.” The ineffable feeling of that day did not return until 2003 when I began to make pictures at a small racetrack, the Downs at Albuquerque.
I see this body of work as raw material for a series of vignettes not unlike those in Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, except that the “town” in this case is the backside and frontside of the Downs. Unlike the sort of realistic view that is usually associated with social documentary photography, my intent is to suggest narrative possibilities through intimate photographs of people, happenings, objects, and settings. I hope to convey the atmosphere of an untold story through flashes of psychological insight, through moments of meeting.
It is hard to imagine that horse racing was the most popular spectator sport in America only 40 years ago. Since then its popularity has diminished, in large part because of the expansion of casinos, and many tracks have closed. One of the grooms at the Downs told me that most racetracks have become more like bus stations, with strangers just coming and going. He said that on the backside, it used to be that everyone from different barns would get together to play cards and tell stories after they had finished with the horses. “Now,” he added, “It’s just a job. Still, at this track, it’s more like the old days.”
Just last week the New Mexico Racing Commission gave the Downs permission to relocate in Moriarty, a small town located some distance from Albuquerque. The track’s owners plan to build a new, $65 million racetrack and casino with more than double the number of slot machines. But for now, vestiges of the old days are still present in the shadows of the grandstand that overlooks the finish line at the Downs at Albuquerque. It is my aim to record these remaining fragments before they disappear altogether.
Ellen Rennard received a BA in Independent Studies from Princeton University in 1976 and an MA from Middlebury College in 1988. She has studied photography with Eugene Richards, Joyce Tenneson, Craig Stevens, among others, but was introduced to portraiture by her father when she was very young. Rennard was the still photographer for the documentary, The True Meaning of Pictures, and an assistant to Shelby Lee Adams. Her images have appeared in publications including Oxford American, Rangefinder, and B&W. She is the recipient of numerous grants including the Kodak Educator’s Scholarship and recently lectured at the Griffin Museum of Photography. She currently teaches English at the Groton School.