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.
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.
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.
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.