Friday, May. 24, 2024

Douglas Lees’ Eclipse Award Was A Snap

With two Eclipse Awards and three honorable mentions, this Virginia photographer is among an elite crowd.

“I love getting published. It’s sort of like a drug for me, a real rush. But winning an Eclipse Award again after 29 years just blows me away,” declared Douglas Lees on learning of the coveted honor.

Lees’ entry, “Down to Earth,” shows timber horse Navesink View nearly vertical over a post-and-rail fence. Jockey Will Haynes is in mid air and upside down but still holding the reins.
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With two Eclipse Awards and three honorable mentions, this Virginia photographer is among an elite crowd.

“I love getting published. It’s sort of like a drug for me, a real rush. But winning an Eclipse Award again after 29 years just blows me away,” declared Douglas Lees on learning of the coveted honor.

Lees’ entry, “Down to Earth,” shows timber horse Navesink View nearly vertical over a post-and-rail fence. Jockey Will Haynes is in mid air and upside down but still holding the reins.

Although the judges’ comments are confidential, Jim Gluckson, senior director of event communications for the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, confirmed that Lees’ photograph, taken at the 2007 International Gold Cup (Va.) in October, merited the prize because “it captured a peak moment of action and was technically precise.”

In winning his second Eclipse Award, Lees joins an elite group of only four photographers who have been honored more than once, according to Gluckson. Lees’ first winning photograph captured a similarly dramatic fall, and both entries were published originally in the Fauquier Times-Democrat.

“It was a horrible day at Foxfield [Va.], must have been 100 degrees,” Lees recalled about the 1978 photo. “The shot was of Buzzy Hannum on Master’s Degree and much like the shot that won this year. I just knew it was good!

“And, I’m glad to say,” he continued, “like this year’s photograph, both horses and riders were uninjured.”

Lees also received Eclipse honorable mention commendation in 1980, 1981 and 1994. He’s especially proud of his 1981 citation because it recognized his entire entry. The 1980 runner-up was a stunning shot at the Virginia Gold Cup from underneath a fence, using a plug cord and a remote switch. In 1994 his camera caught Political Angel at the International Gold Cup in an unfortunate position, comparable to this year’s winning shot.

“I thought the 1994 picture had a pretty good chance,” Lees explained. “It was right on the edge and just missed. And I thought the 1980 one had a real chance too because it was off the wall to take a picture from underneath. That photo has appeared in numerous publications again and again. It’s simply dramatic.”

Lees, 57, was born in Washington, D.C., and has lived all his life in Warrenton, Va., where his family has roots for generations. During the week he works in insurance, dealing with property, casualty, farm and equine matters. Weekends are devoted almost solely to taking photographs and his other passion, fly-fishing.

Lees first became interested in photography around age 16 and published his first photograph at age 17 on the front page of the Fauquier Times-Democrat. He was, he admitted, hooked from then on.

“I have to credit my parents for my interest,” Lees related. “Both of them were always taking pictures. There were always cameras in the house, and they taught me how to develop black-and-white film. Sometimes they developed pictures right there on the kitchen table, but they also had a darkroom. My parents were also my first line editorial review of my pictures, especially the foxhunting photographs. My father is still taking his own pictures, and to this day he still reviews virtually all of my foxhunting and steeplechasing pictures before they go out. Their support was crucial.”

For further training, Lees looked initially to well-regarded local professional photographer, the late Marshall Hawkins.

“I spent a lot of time with him, just watching what he did and how he did it,” said Lees. “He had a big combat camera that produced huge negatives. It was amazing.”

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Finding His Mentors

By his own account the real breakthrough came, however, when Lees met Peter Winants in the early 1970s. At the time Winants, noted author, former editor and publisher of The Chronicle of the Horse, and the first director of the National Sporting Library, operated a photographic studio in Baltimore. As a foxhunter and amateur timber jockey, Winants specialized in what he knew best: pictures of foxhunting and steeplechasing.

“I will never forget that day that I stopped into Peter’s shop. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing,” said Lees. “At that time he was using a 35 mm camera, and he lent me a big lens to try at Delaware Park. He didn’t even know me, but he is that kind of person. He showed me how to use it, and I decided right then that this was where I wanted to go.”

Lees started with Minolta brand 35 mm cameras and then moved to the Nikon F, a famous camera that was utilized throughout the Vietnam War. It had a motor drive to catch action photographs.

“Peter gave me such a wealth of advice in addition to teaching me about the equipment,” Lees remembered. “He told me to compress the action, to get the big image. If the pictures aren’t any good, you’re not close enough. You want a big impact; that means a big lens.”

Such advice led to a Lees photo of Redmond Stewart’s Maryland Hunt Cup winner Haffaday falling at the next-to-last fence of the 1970 Virginia Gold Cup. That depiction was picked up by the Associated Press and appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch. The week before he also made his first cover for the Maryland Horse magazine with a photo of Nancy Hannum’s Morning Mac.

“This was the era when not only Peter Winants but Skip Ball, Neena Ewing and Cappy Jackson were shooting for the Maryland Horse. I felt I was in pretty good company to get that cover,” Lees stated, with customary modesty.

In addition to taking the photographs, Lees did his own darkroom work. He liked being able to control
the processing action and do his own cropping and printing. Yet this meant that Lees was sticking to black-and-white photographs when others were moving to color and the media was demanding it.

“I remember two pictures from 1989. They were significant because both finish shots were involved in contests, although not Eclipse competitions,” Lees emphasized. “It rained at the Manor [My Lady’s Manor (Md.)]. Von Csadek won, and Cappy [Jackson] got some great pictures. I barely made it to the Grand National [Md.] and got a late start. After two strange weekends, I got my act together at the Maryland Hunt Cup, but it was raining there too, and both Neena [Ewing] and Cappy were shooting.

“To my surprise my horizontal shot of Uncle Merlin and Freeman’s Hill won the Chronicle’s photography contest that year. The last shot of the finish I cropped vertically and sent to the Maryland Horse. Barrie Reightler [director of publications] put it on the cover, even though it was in black-and-white.”

Reightler also entered it in the American Horse Publications cover contest for 1989—and it won that award for the Maryland Horse.

Photography In The 21st Century

Since 2006, however, Lees is not only shooting primarily color pictures, but he has also gone to the digital format, still using a Nikon camera and upgraded lenses but combined with a Mac computer instead of a darkroom.

“With this equipment,” he said, “the camera reads conditions automatically; it even readjusts the ASA if, for example, it starts to rain. It’s very sophisticated, and the imagery is so much better. And when you can see the picture as soon as you shoot it, you know if something has gone wrong with the camera.”

Less also enjoys resharpening images on the computer, enhancing the color, cropping, and even making huge enlargements. “Plus the filing system and the back up are superior,” he said. “With digital there’s no hunting around for old negatives, getting them printed and the like. I use digital now for everything, even my fishing pictures.”

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Yet taking good photographs is a lot more than buying good equipment. Lees said that he concentrates on not making mistakes on the little technical things, not getting too close with his big lenses and cutting off part of the image, but also not getting so far away that the image loses impact.

“I tend to do the same fences at a race. The Virginia Gold Cup, for example, is very easy to shoot. Mr. Arundel [Arthur Arundel, founder of Great Meadows] had the course designed with television coverage in mind so the sunlight is just right,” he said.

Tips For Amateurs

For the average person attempting to take good action shots of steeplechasing and foxhunting, Douglas Lees recommends first of all that one acquire the best possible equipment. Beyond that, the photographer must understand the sport, walk the course, take notice of the barrels and the flags so you don’t get run over, and study, again and again, good work by other photographers.

“You have to be patient and persistent,” Lees advised. “Take lots of pictures and spend time analyzing them. Work on the sharpness of the image; that’s imperative. Just keep trying.”

Lees tries to get as many fences as possible, plus the finish. “I saw a shot that Peter Winants took of Landing Party over the ninth fence of the Maryland Hunt Cup a number of years ago,” he said. “Peter
was the only one at that fence, and he got something no one else did. Any time I can be the only one shooting there, I think I have the advantage.”

Lees is also known for his impressive foxhunting photographs. Shooting those, however, he terms “wilder” because he must drive to numerous sites, park the car, leap out and run on foot around the fields to try to get as close as possible. As a foxhunter himself, Lees understands the sport and the country he shoots,
almost always in the Warrenton area. Still, getting the perfect picture is totally unpredictable. He tries to anticipate where the huntsman will cast his hounds and what line the fox may take, but there are
times when he admits he just plain loses everyone.

“Even when I’m frustrated and can’t find anyone, it’s still a beautiful day, just being outside,” Lees contended.

The Eclipse Award annual dinner was held Jan. 21, in Beverley Hills, Calif. “I have an award-winning published photograph, and I got a trip to California in the winter. What could be better? ” Lees mused.

Considering that he has entered photographs in the Eclipse competition for 25 of the last 29 years, the answer for Douglas Lees is probably to capture another national award in 2008. In any event, he will just keep trying.



Tough Competition

The Media Eclipse Award for Photography is one of seven media categories bestowed for outstanding coverage of Thoroughbred racing. The others include several writing divisions, television coverage, and multimedia presentations. Sponsored by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the Daily Racing Form, and the National Turf Writers Association, the prizes have been given for 37 years.

The name “Eclipse” memorializes the 18th century race horse and sire who began racing at age 5 and was unbeaten in 18 starts. In addition, Eclipse sired winners of 344 races, including six Epsom Derbys (England).

Rules for the contest are definitive. All entries must have been published in a paid-circulation publication or appeared on an Internet website affiliated with a paid publication. The entry, limited to only two photographs per person, must originate with the individual photographer and must include four 8″ x 10″ prints with no identification marks, plus a tear sheet from the publication. This year’s judges were Edward Reinke of the Associated Press in Louisville, Ky., Jim Gensheimer of the San Jose Mercury News (Calif.), and Dan Farrell, a former photographer for the New York Daily News.

“The judges are always professionals in the field themselves, and the panel changes each year,” explained Jim Gluckson, senior director of event communications for the NTRA. “Each judge will have his own criteria, based on his or her expertise. The winning photograph will show not only an exciting moment but also be extraordinary in its sharpness and clarity. They judge craft as well as style.”

Margaret Worrall

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