Tony Leonard has been standing behind his tripod for nearly an hour at Walmac Farm in Lexington, Ky., but he hasn't taken a picture. The sun keeps ducking behind a cloud, and the wind keeps playing havoc with his subject's mane. To top it off, the stallion, Strike Gold, a son of Mr. Prospector, is as fidgety as a five-year-old in a dentist's chair. Finally, on perhaps the 100th try, a groom positions Strike Gold's legs where the photographer wants them, and, miracle of miracles, the horse stands still, at least for the moment. All would be perfect if Leonard could get the animal to look alert. Standing just out of camera range, Leonard's wife and assistant, Adelle, holds an umbrella waist-high, points it at the colt and opens it with a flourish. The stallion's eyes widen. His ears perk up. Leonard clicks away.
"Good horse," yells Leonard. Then he says, "Let's try it again." It takes another hour and a tape recording of a mare whinnying—the umbrella having lost its surprise element—before Leonard is satisfied with the shoot and heads home to process the film.
"Patience is the key," says Leonard, 66, who is considered one of the world's premier thoroughbred photographers. His pictures have appeared in hundreds of magazines and on posters. They have been used as models by sculptors and painters and have been displayed in exhibits around the country. Many of Leonard's jobs, like the session with Strike Gold, are for conformation photos—side-view portraits showing all four legs of a horse. These pictures are used to advertise yearlings for sale or stallions standing at stud. According to Edward L. Bowen, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse magazine, a good conformation photograph shows the physical structure of a horse in the clearest way.
When Leonard is working for a breeder or an owner, his job is to capture the pose that maximizes the horse's good features and downplays his or her faults. "Tony's great talent is that he can size up a horse and know when he is standing at his best," says Bowen.
Photography was originally a hobby of Leonard's. He was a professional singer who often took photographs of other entertainers that he and Adelle, a dancer, met on their tours around the country. In 1961 a gig brought the Leonards to Lexington, where they decided to settle. There he turned his hobby into a full-time career and, this being Blue-grass country, horses were an obvious choice of subject.
Leonard says he would not make a good news photographer. "My first concern is always the horse," he says. "If a multimillion-dollar horse bolts, I'm not going to get the shot, I'm going to drop my camera and help catch the horse." Adelle confirms that her husband is a softy when it comes to animals. "He was at Belmont the day Ruffian broke down [in 1975]. All the other photographers ran to get the picture, but he ran the other way. He couldn't bear to look at it."
His most important assignment was for Queen Elizabeth II, who went to Kentucky in 1984 to tour a number of horse farms. Leonard received a telephone call from the British embassy asking if he would be interested in chronicling the Queen's visit. The embassy official said Leonard had been recommended by a Lexington horseman, a polo-playing friend of Prince Charles's. There would be no compensation, but the negatives would be his. The Queen would select the pictures she wanted for her albums from contact sheets.
Leonard jumped at the chance to shoot the Queen's visit. Although there were several "photo opportunities" during her stay, Leonard was the only photographer on hand when she toured seven farms. He chose to use a telephoto lens at all times in order to be unobtrusive, a gesture he feels was appreciated. "Every once in a while, when I was standing back behind a tree or something, she would turn and wave to me," he says. "The aura about the woman was incredible. Even the horses seemed to behave when she was around."
Later, a British tabloid offered him big bucks for any unflattering picture he might have of the Queen, but he refused. Says Leonard, "I have too good a reputation to ruin it this late in life."