Covering the Kentucky Derby is no easy task. There are countless photographers working to get the position they need to make their picture. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had the privilege of working with and teaching fellow Nikon Ambassador Andrew Hancock. Since this is the 10th anniversary of the first time we worked together, we decided to do a joint blog post about covering the Derby, collaboration and life.

 

010_wThe 141st Kentucky Derby from under rail. (Photo by Bill Frakes)


Bill:
I was covering a Colt’s game in Indy in 2004 — that was 5 million miles and at least 5 million images ago — and this tall, gangly nervous kid with a subtle Texas accent came up to me on the sideline and introduced himself. He said he really wanted to learn more, he was willing to work very hard at it, and he knew making images needed to be a huge part of his life. Something in his calm manner and determined look resonated with me, so I said okay, let’s stay in touch, and I’ll see if I can help point you in the right direction.

Ten years ago to the day, I brought him to Louisville to work with my team at the Kentucky Derby. Except for not knowing there is a time change between Indy and Louisville and showing up very flustered and a little late, he did a great job that weekend. Working in the first turn, he fired the remote camera that produced a Leading Off in Sports Illustrated. He paid attention, worked very hard, and was unfailingly polite. He earned another chance.

 

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SI Leading Off: The pack makes its way around turn one at Churchill Downs during the Kentucky Derby. 50-1 longshot Giacomo would win go on to win the 131st running of the race.

 

Andy: Ten years ago, I was fresh out of college and working at a small six-day-a-week newspaper in rural northeast Indiana. I was eager to learn, grow and work. A little over a year into that first job, I was most fortunate when covering a Colts game in Indianapolis during the 2004 season that I would cross paths with one of the very few photographers who I have admired since the beginning, Bill Frakes. Cautious to approach as he was holding court with a handful of photographers around him, he made the time for an introduction and a few brief conversations during the game. I knew that in order for me to start taking strides in my career, I needed to work with and learn from the best and take myself out of my comfort zone. By the end of the game, that opportunity came when I offered my services to assist and learn. Bill suggested I stay in touch, and he would see if I could join his Derby crew. That first trip to Churchill Downs would come that following spring as I was welcomed to Bill’s Sports Illustrated crew to help in his coverage of the 131st running of the Kentucky Derby.

That first year was an eye opening experience for me and put me on a path with much greater aspirations and goals. It challenged me in every way I could imagine. It changed my vision and my trajectory and was a watershed moment in my career. During the past ten years, I’ve continued to work with Bill on various projects and assignments… but one place I kept coming back to each year was Churchill.  Over the course of eight Derbies, I sought the chance not only to make some pictures for myself, but more importantly, the chance to learn from one of the greats.

Bill: We’ve been some places since then. Except for his honeymoon with his lovely wife Maria, his first trips out of the country were spent working with me. He never fails to be there when I need him, he’s been a great friend and terrific colleague through it all.

Andy has turned into one of the world’s best photographers. He has an abundance of natural talent and intellect, but I’m pretty happy to be able to say that he earns everything he gets. The man works his tail off with a fierce determination to make the most of any situation.

I often hear folks — art directors, picture editors, agents — say that you need to do personal pictures.  Seriously?  EVERY picture I make is personal. They all matter, each and every time. Andy gets that too, and it’s a huge reason why he is really good at this.

Andy: Even after I began working as a contributing photographer for Sports Illustrated eight years ago, I kept coming back to assist Bill at the Derby. It is no easy task running a crew of assistants and managing the tremendous operation of a large remote camera setup with cameras positioned all over the track. Each year was new and exciting and every year I would learn something from Bill. The technical knowledge I received was substantial. Equally important was his advice and the insight on the industry — how it was changing, how to prepare and how to succeed. He began to take me under his wing to teach me… and to push me.

Coming back to Churchill each year was much more than coming to assist. I kept coming to work with and help out a mentor, a colleague, a friend. With eyes and ears open, working with Bill made me a better photographer. He refused to let me settle or make a routine picture. He forced me to stay out of my comfort zone and to think ahead and faster than everyone else.

Bill: It’s been huge fun watching him grow. The cross pollination between us reminds me of the way Heinz Kluetmeier — maybe the best there ever was — helped me. Kluet taught me to think, to work, and to turn it up when things get tough.  Andy’s got that intensity now too. Outside of our mutual friend Laura Heald, I can’t think of anyone I trust more to always get it done.

One of our mutual bonds, and something we share with Kluet, is love for our daughters. We all have a lot going on professionally, but no conversation starts without stories about the girls. It’s a joy, and pretty sure it helps keep us not only grounded, but moving ahead strongly.

I love looking at his new work, that big silly grin that he gets every time he shows me a new image or wants to bounce an idea for a project off me is one of the things that makes my job/life the best I can possibly imagine.

Andy: After my second Derby, Bill and I were talking as we walked beneath the historic twin spires atop the Churchill Downs grandstand when he gave me a piece of advice that I carry with me on every assignment. We were discussing our editors and image selection. Photographers won’t always agree with editors when it comes to image selection and as we were talking about that, Bill told me a simple and powerful statement. He said that regardless of what an editor picks or doesn’t pick, our job is to create something special, and we will do that.

His advice however also went beyond the technical. A few years ago, my wife Maria and I were talking about the possibility of growing our family. I wanted to hear from friends and colleagues first hand on the challenges that I would face. I was starting to travel a lot and knew that part of my job would increase substantially, which it has. Bill’s love and admiration for his daughter is inspiring. As we were in the work room preparing equipment in 2011, I asked him if it was worth it… balancing fatherhood and work. He quickly stopped what he was doing, turned around and grinned ear to ear. “Absolutely,” he said, ‘Without a doubt.” The only Derby I missed in the last 10 years was 2012… because my wife was pregnant with our first daughter.

Over the years, our conversations became less of the technical variety and more of the personal and philosophical variety as we discussed the changing landscape of our industry. Now, we look at ways to collaborate. We have similar, but visually distinct and different visions and approaches. After the 2014 Derby, Bill and I stayed an extra day to shoot California Chrome at the stables and follow that up with proper coffee and breakfast while we discussed the road we each were on and how to make that road intersect even more often.

Even though Bill and I were on different teams this year, our goals were still the same… to make a special picture not only for our client, but for ourselves. I would be taking all the notes I have made over the past decade in working with Bill and putting them to practice for myself and the New York Times.

My editor for the assignment, Jeff Furticella, is one editor that I have more respect for than most. He has been in the trenches as a photographer and also worked as an SI assistant for Bill at the Derby in 2006. He has great vision in what he looks for in a photograph and how to select the best photo to tell the story. He and I were also teammates at the Eddie Adams Workshop in 2006. Our team leader? Bill Frakes. Our team editor? The fabulous James Colton.

Looking back at this past Derby, I know that the best photos I made are the photos Jeff selected for the paper and for the online gallery. I can look back and know I was able to follow Bill’s advice and know that I succeeded in creating something special both for the NYT and for myself. This year will go down as a year just as memorable as my first one ten years ago. My favorite image this year was from a new position that had never before been attempted in 141 years as I mounted a camera to a light pole near the finish line.

 

LOUISVILLE, KY. - MAY 2, 2015: XXXXXXX XXXXX during the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Andrew Hancock for The New York Times)

During the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. (Photo by Andrew Hancock)

 

While it was my favorite, it was not selected for print. For that, Jeff would select an image made from the outside of turn one as American Pharoah would start to move outside to keep pace with the leaders.

Ten years ago during that first Derby with Bill, I was triggering a set of remote cameras on the outside of turn one. The frame that would tell the story that year of 50-1 long shot Giacomo winning the race would come from those cameras. A wide shot showing Giacomo making his first move around the outside of turn one with the iconic spires in the background. It ran as a Leading Off. It was the most exciting thing I had ever been a part of in my career at that point. This year was as equally as exciting.

That first year I was working for Bill and this year, I was working alongside him. Both I feel are defining moments in my career.

Bill: This past weekend, we were crawling around in the catwalks and on the roof of venerable Churchill Downs figuring out together the best way to do something different. Most everybody else had left a long time before, and we were standing high over the Downs talking about the best ways to cover the race on Saturday and about future projects.

One of the things I do is think ahead.  Last year, Andy pointed out an angle he thought we should try this year — at the time we didn’t know we would be working for different organizations. When we talked a few weeks before this year’s race Andy mentioned that he was going to put a camera on the light stand, and that he was going to work on getting permission.  I casually told him I’d already been in touch with the track and we were good to go – I already had it cleared.

We couldn’t have done this the same way without help from Darren Rogers and Keith Kleine at Churchill.

Our friends at Nikon helped out hugely as well.

Andy used 18 Nikon cameras and lenses.  I used 28 of each. I’ve been to the Derby 31 times.

Every single year someone from Nikon Professional Services has done something to help me.

This year, I was on my way to the barns on Sunday and stopped for coffee.

The NYT sports section was open on a table.

It made me smile.

 

NYT

 

 

Bill’s Favorite Images from the 141st Kentucky Derby


Andy’s Favorite Images from the 141st Kentucky Derby

I live much of my life with a nonstop musical score, sometimes just the one in my mind, but more often actual sounds… so I considered it a very good omen when the first song in the rotation today was Patty Larkin’s Letter…”Give me a ticket for an airplane…”

I’m heading to Louisville for the 141st annual running of the Kentucky Derby, my favorite annual sporting event.

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This will be my 31st time there, and every single time it’s been magic.  I love being at Churchill Downs, they’ve always greeted me warmly — Southern Hospitality at its finest.

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Sunrise on the backside. Beautiful.  Blissfully peaceful, even with the cacophony of Derby week.

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The stunningly powerful thoroughbreds, just babies, but magnificent, the best of their breed — coats glistening in the early morning air as they breathe hard following the morning gallop. Getting washed, and rubbed down, surrounded by crowds of onlookers all eager for this private glance at the elite 20.

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There are a number of sporting traditions that still move me. The crowd at the Melbourne Cricket Ground singing Waltzing Matilda before the Aussie Rules Grand Final, the quiet when the sprinters get into blocks for 100 meters final at the Olympics, match point on centre court at Wimbledon, walking through the Grove before an Ole Miss/LSU game Dixie quietly being played behind heavy Southern drawls and lilting coed laughter — I’ve gotten to be there front and center for all of them.  But there is nothing like hearing My Old Kentucky Home as the horses enter the track for the greatest two minutes in sports.

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When that happens, I go to a different place, the one where I am a young boy hanging out in a pasture with a little red transistor radio listening to the call crackling on the tiny speaker imagining the splendor of the great place.  Little did I imagine I’d be standing on the track year after year during the race, comfortable with surroundings I’ve come to know so well.

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Lots of my friends will be in town for the race and it’ll be wonderful to see them, especially Dan Dry who took me to my first Derby; Razor Bogdon who will no doubt borrow something from my cases; and the little General, Bill Luster, whose covering his 50th Derby. 50! Wow! From hearing stories, I would have guessed the number to be much higher.

Derby4_w

But three won’t, and I’m sad about that.

I worked the race maybe 25 times with the legendary Heinz Kluetmeier — the best there ever was, and my default answer at the track is always the same, WWKD?

Laura Heald has been with me doing a lot of the heavy thinking — and lifting — for the past 7 Derbies, but we’ve been running especially hard this year, and she is sitting this one out. I’ll really miss her. We got in from Beirut last night, and we’re headed back out right after the Derby so she drew the long straw and gets to enjoy some much deserved beach time before another three intense weeks on the road.

The last absent friend, Tony Leonard. His image of Secretariat as a colt hangs in my office.  He was a special guy. We lost him a few years ago, 89 years young.  I’ll raise a lens to him, and save him a spot on the rail — as he would have done for me.

My friend Amine Khoury; a kind, thoughtful, gentle man of letters was telling me one fine fall morning that one of his greatest desires in life was to be able to fully share his love of his native Lebanon, especially Beirut, with the world. 

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As we talked, I felt his sadness about the lack of international understanding for the city.  Sitting on his balcony far above the burgeoning populous, a gentle breeze carrying the aroma of the sea, the scents of thousands of flowers, and wafting smells of delicious cooking foods we spoke over strong coffee, wonderful Arabic bread and walnuts.  He explained that if people could just see the love, life and laughter the city contains through children’s perspectives, the world would view the city as the vibrant metropolis it is – full of life, culture, food, music, grace and style. 

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Beirut is tucked tightly along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean—a city known for a long time  as the Paris of the Middle East.  As a man who made the first of at least  50 visits to Paris as a 15 year old, more than 40 years ago, I can tell you without question that the comparison fits—except I find the citizenry of Beirut far more affable and engaging than those of the French capital.

Beirut is a visually stunning place. The faces of the people are glorious.  The fashion diverse, yet consistently immaculate. From the apartments overlooking the coast, snow capped peaks are visible much of the year. It’s magic.   

There are of course the scars left by the conflict the place has endured.  Those wounds are slowly being eradicated by booming real estate construction. 

Lebanon itself is a small country, less than the size of Wales, but it’s people have had a massive impact on the history of civilization. From Byblos the ancient Phoenicians exported the alphabet making possible so many of the great literary joys and treasures the world enjoys. Perhaps the  DNA the modern Lebanese share with their ancestors  is the reason they venture far and wide sharing a marvelous sense of, well, simply embracing life with a joy, a fervor for education and the security of close companionship that is especially gained through a commonality of understanding.   

It’s clear that children have a unique perspective, one that is not clouded with bias, and they are excited to share their ideas with the world. It’s Amine’s vision, and passion, and the love for country, family—both personal and his students  that drove us to want to partner with the Eastwood College for the Beirut Through Our Eyes project. 

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I’m pleased that this week, we are back in Beirut, helping nine hundred students make a film about their hometown.  Each level of the Eastwood College ranging from pre K to 12th grade will work together to document a different aspect of the city as only they can. The students will share their insights through words written and spoken, images still and moving, dance and drawing. The results of their work will be displayed in a short documentary film, and an iBook.     

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Beirut Through Our Eyes is about digital citizenship. It is about teaching storytelling.  It’s about pride.  It’s about sharing. This film festival is a way for the students to spread the joys of creativity, filmmaking, and education.

I hope you‘ll have a chance to follow the progress of  the project on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtags #BeirutThroughOurEyes #LiveLoveBeirut #EastwoodCollege #EastwoodSchools.



 

 

 

 

The Nebraska name game continues……

I was the keynote speaker at the Freedom Awards in Kearney, NE. on Tuesday night.  Great crowd, completely sold out.

Walking to the conference room, Laura and I were discussing how long it would be before I met someone I could play connect the Nebraska name game with.

I immediately connected with my cousin Kip, but Laura claimed he didn’t count.

At dinner, the woman seated next to me introduced herself and her husband.  Thirty seconds into our conversation, I learned my Uncle Ron married them.

After the speech more familiar faces showed up.

http://www.nebraskaproject.com/portfolio-item/rodney-delores/

rodney

Nebraska, the good life.

Flying last night through a very turbulent, apparently angry sky. Or possibly one that had too much chili earlier on…

flight

As I was indulging one of my great guilty pleasures, Garden and Gun magazine, I came across a marvelous little piece by Ace Atkins, a fine Southern novelist — even if he did play football for Auburn, that cut to the chase of what it’s been like working for Sports Illustrated for a huge chunk of my adult life.

He wrote:

“Even after writing 17 novels, I inevitably encounter people at my Alabama book events with the ragged old SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover I was on more than 20 years ago and that’s what they want me to sign.”

As it always is.

Covers

Of all the SI covers I’ve shot, these are four of my favorites mainly because the subjects were terrific.

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