NEWS

An odds-on favorite exhibit on 'Racing Life' at Suffolk Downs

Chris Bergeron

For 16 months, Joshua Touster spent all his spare time at Suffolk Downs getting to know the jockeys and thoroughbreds, the tout with the 100-to-1 tip and losers throwing away useless tickets.

Rather than studying the racing form for the next quiniela, the Watertown photographer was chronicling the daily life of the East Boston race track where Whirlaway once galloped to glory but now hosts the annual Hot Dog Safari.

Recalling his time at the track, Touster said, "I asked for and got complete access at Suffolk. After a while I realized it's all about a love of horses and the thrill of racing. It's a hard way to make a living."

Twenty-nine of Touster's photos are on display now at the Newton Free Library in a fascinating exhibit titled "Racing Life."

The free show remains on view through Oct. 30 in the library at 330 Homer St.

Throughout all of 2007 and part of 2008, Touster shot more than 70,000 images of a vanishing subculture, with varied denizens bound by the action, the need to earn a living and the lure of a big payoff.

Shooting in color, he captures the furious excitement of the races and the quiet moments between when bets are placed and hopes die hard.

Flank to flank, three horses gallop through the mud heading for the home stretch. Sitting together in the stands, two old men watch the action through binoculars. A wiry jockey with a horse head tattooed on his flank heads for the showers after the races.

Part anthropologist, part voyeur, Touster watched his subjects from every nook and cranny at Suffolk Downs: He took photos in the jockeys' room and from behind tellers' windows, from the stables and the finish line, with the veterinarians and the poor chump who couldn't win a $2 bet.

"It's about everything. That's why I titled it 'Racing Life.' My focus was on the people who work at the track," he said. "I took a huge amount of photos. This is a project that won't die."

Throughout the show, Touster avoids the sentimentality of "National Velvet" and nags-to-riches sagas like "Seabiscuit."

"People erroneously think track people are low-lifes. I found them to be the hardest working people I ever met. You can't slack off," he said."The reason I like them is because they don't follow the norms of society. It's a culture that's been pretty much the same for hundreds of years."

The jockeys, trainers and gamblers Touster photographs are just plain folks brought together by gorgeous steeds participating in a sporting ritual that has seen better days.

In "Kevin and Tom," a diminutive jockey rests between races while a starter with outlandish sideburns sips Gatorade. A woman with long white fingernails caresses a thoroughbred's nose "In The Paddock." His bony face splattered with mud, a jockey smiles like a big winner in "After The Race."

"Basically I'm trying to get the humanity of people at the track in a non-exploitive way," said Touster. "I think it shows through the photos."

While focusing more on the human drama than equine competition, Touster also captures the furious excitement of "the sport of kings" in action-packed photos like "At The Finish" in which a pack of six horses in mid-gallop seem to float above the track.

For much of his professional career, Touster has photographed very different yet complex subcultures, like pop music and minor league baseball, that demand an insider's eye and months of hard work.

He may have been born for such projects.

Raised in New York City, Touster had his first darkroom at the age of 11 and was making his own films at 16.

He was immersed in art at a young age. His father chaired the Fine Arts Department of Parsons School of Design in New York. He earned his bachelor's degree in 1976 from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., and a master's degree in fine arts photography in 1980 from Rhode Island School of Design.

Touster has worked as a professional photographer for nearly 30 years mixing in teaching jobs at Wellesley College, the New England School of Photography, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and California's Chino State Prison. He has shown his photos in more than 30 solo and group exhibits.

Touster cited an eclectic mix of photographers Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Lee Friedlander and Spanish surrealist filmmaker Luis Bunuel as influences on his own style.

In the mid-1980s, Touster decided to move from single photographs to "large-scale photo essays." "I realized I wanted to be closer to my subjects," he said.

In 1984 he followed Michael Jackson on his six-month Victory Tour across the United States and Canada to capture what he called "the cultural phenomena" of the fans and imitators, the roadies and merchants who sold white gloves at concerts.

Touster also followed the Brockton Rox baseball team in 2006, shooting more than 70,000 images over a heartbreaking season that ended with a blown lead and loss in the last game of the finals of the Canadian-American Association of Professional Baseball. His photo series, "A Season on the Rox," was exhibited in Logan Airport, the Newton Free Library and the Sports Museum at TD Banknorth Garden.

"In minor league baseball, it's not about money. It's about hanging on," he said. "The reality is most guys aren't going to make it to the 'Bigs,"' he said.

Touster also works in fine arts and commercial photography "shooting a huge amount of photos" for Massachusetts General Hospital. "In commercial work, I'm always looking to make that photo that goes into the realm of art," he said.

For Touster, the "Racing Life" project satisfied his personal and professional need "to put myself into situations where I probably wouldn't ordinarily go."

"I need to do that," he said. "It gives a legitimacy to the project and makes for fascinating photos of a particular place and the people who go there."

Over the months Touster spent at Suffolk Downs, he "only laid about five $2 bets" but won on two races, including the Mass. Cup.

Whether you've never been to the track or lost your shirt the last time, Touster's "Racing Life" is a winner. You can bet on it.

THE ESSENTIALS:

The gallery of the Newton Free Library is open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday; 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, call the Newton Free Library at 617-796-1360. All programs are free. Free parking is available. The library is handicap accessible.

For more information, call 617-796-1360 or visit www.newtonfreelibrary.net.

To learn about Joshua Touster or order his photographs, visit www.joshuatousterphotography.com/suffolk.