Fair Grounds in New Orleans has withstood the test of time as one of the most revered racetracks in North America. For the past forty years, track photographer Lou Hodges, Jr. has captured the racing history of the venerable establishment in his own inimitable style.
Hodges is a second-generation photographer. His dad, Lou Hodges, Sr. was a veteran of the Army Air Corps during World War II and began working under Fair Grounds track photographer Jack Blythe in 1948. When Blythe retired, Hodges took over and enjoyed a successful career, honored as a member of the Fair Grounds Press Box Hall of Fame. He passed the baton to his son in 1976.
Lou Hodges, Jr. served as track photographer at several racetracks, including Rockingham Park, Washington Park and Arlington Park prior to taking the position at Fair Grounds.
He explains the goal of the images created by Hodges Photography.
“Our technique for getting perfect race shots is to use telephoto lenses to have tight shots,” said Hodges. “We are always looking for different angles and different compositions that will make someone who views the image look twice.”
Hodges has photographed some of the most celebrated Thoroughbreds in the six-month winter Thoroughbred meet, which culminates with the running of the Louisiana Derby, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby. He cites Rachel Alexandra, Risen Star, A Letter To Harry and Gun Runner as some of the most memorable champions he has photographed at Fair Grounds.
He became part of the first father-son Fair Grounds Press Box Hall of Fame, when he was inducted in 2014.
Several years, ago, Hodges added his daughter, Amanda Hodges Weir, to his operation. She began shooting in New Orleans periodically in 2011, but came to the business full time in 2015.
“It’s great to work with my dad,” said Amanda. “I couldn’t ask for a better mentor. He’s patient and very encouraging.”
Hodges Photography also has the contract at Harrah’s Louisiana Downs in Shreveport. Ann Switalski handles the day-to-day duties for both the Quarter Horse and Thoroughbred meets, with Lou coming in for the bigger race days, including Super Derby in September.
Hodges continues to add to his repertoire and create iconic images at Fair Grounds. In addition to post parade, stretch, wire and comeback shots, Lou and Amanda, with their Cannon equipment and various telephoto lenses, are always in search of shots with a “wow” factor.
Lou wanted to recreate a photo of horses rounding the far turn in front of the grandstand and accomplished that goal on Thanksgiving Day.
“It was a picture I have wanted to take for several years,” he explained. “But, several things had to be in order. I needed good weather, a long race and the ability to be on a lift high enough to get the desired angle.”
With the support of Gabe Martin, a member of the Fair Grounds facility maintenance staff, who was using a hydraulic Snorkel Lift for a light bulb replacement, Hodges stood 60 feet above the track to get his shot.
“I’m not crazy about heights, but needed to be up that high to get what I wanted,” he said.
There are many photographs he is proud of, including a beautiful sunset image of Gun Runner in the 2016 Risen Star and Calvin Borel giving Rachel Alexandra a congratulatory pat as she won the Fair Ground Oaks in 2009.
But believe it or not, as much as he enjoys the graded stakes runners and Eclipse Award-winning champions, he appreciates the maiden and allowance winners just as much.
Digital photography has added both ease and dimension to racing photography. Lou and Amanda take pride in creating composite photo arrangements for winning connections.
“We take a lot of photos for connections who may never win a graded stakes race,” he said. “To see the look on their faces when they pick up their photos is really neat and means a lot to us.”
Hodges loves jazz music, with the late Dave Brubeck cited as one of his favorite artists. Fair Grounds is home to the annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which takes place after the conclusion of the Thoroughbred racing season. Set-up for the event is a massive undertaking and the Jazz Fest organizers move in and take control at full throttle. One year, Lou entered the Fair Grounds press box to take an aerial photo of the infield. However, he was refused entrance by the Jazz Fest staff.
“I pointed to my picture on the wall,” said Hodges. “But my Hall of Fame status didn’t make an impact on them!”
Nonetheless, he has high regard for the annual event, preferring to enjoy the festivities from the infield versus the grandstand and elite press box.
No Signs of Slowing Down
Hodges has been a part of a remarkable and often unpredictable history at Fair Grounds. In addition to the racing glory, he has seen the racetrack go through catastrophic events, including the grandstand fire of 1993 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
You might think that after over four decades, the grind of racetrack photography would dull his enthusiasm, but that is far from the case with Lou Hodges.
“Actually, it’s more exciting than ever,” he stated. “It used to be a maddening process in the dark room and composite photos were pretty much impossible. Now with digital photography, there is so much more we can do.”
Ryan Martin, Fair Grounds’ Racing Media Relations Coordinator works closely with Hodges Photography and appreciates Lou for both his personality and professionalism.
“Lou Hodges is a very valuable asset to the Fair Grounds team,” said Martin. “Both he and Amanda do a fabulous job in what they do and are a pleasure to work with. Whenever I need to photo to include with press releases or to post to social media, I can always count on Hodges to come through with a solid, top quality image. He has decades of experience in doing what he does and his work is a massive reflection of that. Aside from his work, Lou is a very great person who is always happy to help out. Racing is anything but short of talented photographers and Lou Hodges is no exception.”
Now 70, Hodges began shooting photos with his dad at Fair Grounds when he was just 12-years-old. He gets a kick out of some the faithful “old timers” who tease him about still “hanging around”, and enjoys working with staffers, many of whom are forty years his junior.
“I’m surrounded by young people, but can outlast them all,” enthusiastically proclaimed Hodges.
Martha Claussen has been prominent in the racing industry since 1997 as a publicist, writer and handicapper.