Talking to Thomas Prior about how his new series Santa Anita came about, it all sounds very serendipitous. He found himself in LA at the same time as his friend, photographer and filmmaker Jake Michaels, and the pair knew they wanted to shoot something together, “so we spent three weekends in a row visiting Santa Anita Park just outside of Los Angeles,” Thomas explains.
From the Kentucky Derby weekend on 2 May until the Preakness Stakes weekend two weeks later, the pair frequented the park, with Thomas snapping the situations he came across and Jake Michaels picking up snippets on film. “We didn’t shoot the Derby or the Preakness,” Thomas clarifies, “we just visited Santa Anita while they were happening to check out the scene and the races there. People gathered at the track and watched or placed bets on those two big races in Kentucky and Maryland on the big screen, in between live races in California.”
How is it then that the resulting collaboration carries all of the atmosphere of a project that had been months in the making? Thomas has an unnatural knack for zeroing in on tiny details of everyday life which are so beautiful they seem to have a cinematic quality, but which are almost imperceptible to the naked eye. From the ripple of a horse’s chestnut hair stretched tight across a muscular body and ribcage, to a smattering of discarded betting tickets decorating a tiled floor, he preserves fleeting moments well beyond their usual lifespan to build a kind of visual archive of what the rest of us might be able to see if we just looked a bit harder.
Jake’s film picks up on a similar stillness – the short feels like a collage of moving images rather than documentary reportage of a chaotic race day, with intense portraits of jockeys made moments after the races’ end being the most dynamic of all his shots. Instead, moments of commentary or audio footage of the cheering crows infuse the film with energy, a kind of lasting intensity that somehow seems to endure for the full two minutes and 21 seconds as he tracks a typical day from start to finish.
It makes for compelling watching, and coupled with Thomas’ photographs, with which many shots overlap, the project is about as cohesive and all-encompassing as they come. If a body of work this good comes down simply to serendipity then I wouldn’t mind a litre of it coming over my way.