Writing by Julian Rankin. Photographs by Tom Rankin.
You’ll hear a lot of things about the Kentucky Derby. The Kentucky Derby is many things.
For a documentary photographer like Tom Rankin, it’s a place where more happens outside the frame of the nationally-televised broadcast than inside. An unlikely mosh of human forms and contrast bursting at the seams. Fine hats. Seersucker sweat. Tube tops and flip flops and concrete and cleavage. Maker's Mark in box seats. Track-side neighbors sacrificing their lawns for quick parking money. No tickets in hand but dressed up just the same. Hot flashes. Linen. Polyester. Silks. Big bets little bets wild bets stupid bets. Exacta. Trifecta. De nada. Indoor plumbing. Porta John. The infield, big mud puddle. Corn dog. Wrestling match. Shirtless. Where’s the race? Mint Juleps too many to count. Simple syrup. See the paddock. Thoroughbred muscle. Grace. Power. The lounge. Old folk atrophy. Look! Listen! Sweet air and blue sky. Jubilant trumpeters trumpeting tradition.
Tom Rankin grew up in Louisville where the horses run. He’s been to the Derby many times. It’s about more than the race.“I’ve almost always taken a camera,” he says, “to try to make photographs about the drama of so many people, such pageantry and masquerade.”
This year, on the first Saturday in May, he wore a pair of two-and-a-quarter Mamiya 6’s. In his art practice, he is analog - every home he’s lived in since the 1980s has had a dark room. The medium format Mamiya is spy tech compared to his lumbering Deardorff 8x10 (not with him today), which necessitates a tripod and a cloak and a Civil War mustache. But in his picture making overall, he’s a digital democrat. He also uses an iPhone and the Hipstamatic app with the Jane lens and 1969 film filter.
“I love to take cell phone pictures. That is my primary digital camera. It’s always at hand, never far away. So making photographs can be purely impulsive. I also photograph so often with black and white film, and find myself picking up the digital phone camera when color is just undeniable.”
“Are you a photographer?” a woman in white and yellow asked. “Then why don’t you take my pitcher!”
“I was asked over 15 times to make cell phone photographs of couples or groups. People handed me their cameras, posed in their finery with whatever background they preferred (the Twin Spires is a favorite), and had me make their picture. I wish I had all those pictures, but they stay with the phone and went who knows where.”
The Derby’s cacophony cannot be fully documented, only participated in. Too many symbols and shiny things and waves of unexpected human shapes for any one eye. The photographer leaves the Derby like any other man of chance. Counting his wins when he gets them, and knowing he always leaves more on the table. Those elusive moments keep Tom Rankin coming back.