Accomplished photographers Amy Toensing and Matt Moyer recently took on a new challenge when they collaborated on the story “Summer in Saratoga” for Traveler magazine. The married duo sat down with Sarah Polger, a senior producer with Nat Geo Travel, and spoke about their first assignment together.
Listen to Amy and Matt share more about working together on assignment:
Sarah Polger: Tell us about working together for the first time on assignment. Your pictures flow together seamlessly. What was your approach coordinating during the coverage?
Amy Toensing: We’ve worked together quite often, but usually Matt will have an assignment, so I come with him and it’s clear that he’s the photographer there and I’m just there to help him, and vice versa. Obviously on this we were both shooters, so it was completely new territory for us. We tried a lot of different things. We would decide who was lead on something. Sometimes we would go cover stuff separately. That was really nice—if two things were going on, I would go one way, he would go the other.
Matt Moyer: We were able to cover more ground that way also.
A.T.: Which is kind of a dream come true for photographers. If we decided to go into [a shoot] together, we decided who was lead and [who was] secondary.
S.P.: You shared six of your favorite pictures from Saratoga, some of which didn’t make the final print layout. As I looked at your selections, there was a natural rhythm in the work, including this scene at the betting counter. Your photos work so well together, relating the tone of Saratoga during the summer race season.
M.M.: Amy, didn’t we take those within minutes of each other? We were just both wandering around. It was nice light. The joy of this was we were able to hang out together at least some of the time and enjoy the ambiance and really soak in the feel of the place. It was great to be there, and [while] Amy’s off making that really beautiful image a little bit wider … I’m facing the other direction and I’m seeing this other image that is more of a tighter detail. In that scenario, we were working in tandem in that situation and both seeing different things. You’re going to have that with photographers.
A.T.: We always talk about themes when we are approaching something. Oh, we’ve got to get this, or, Is that area important to get to cover that? Is that going to help us get the fancy aspect of Saratoga? Where can we get [the picture]? It’s the [planning], but it’s never about the actual construction of the image. That’s more just being in the moment with the subject and with the story.
M.M.: Perhaps because we’ve been doing this a long time, we didn’t actually talk about it, but the reason I chose for one of my [selects] the image where his face is cut off and he’s counting the money is because each one of those elements—the smile, the cigar, the handkerchief, the money—all of that creates a mood and a feeling for the place and represents a tiny little snapshot of what a lot of people are experiencing there. By cutting his face off, it makes it anonymous. It could represent anybody. Whereas, seeing his face, it represents him.
A.T.: It’s iconographic. It suddenly becomes iconographic instead of being about that person.
S.P.: Speaking of hats … Hats are such a subject unto themselves at the races in Saratoga. You both captured moments where hats are integral to the scene.
M.M.: I love hats. We pick up so many clues about people from the way they’re dressed. Hats are one of those things that are such a personal statement. Especially at Saratoga during race season, everybody’s choosing their hats to represent something that they want to say. It’s a dress-up sort of thing.
Shooting the event where the woman is wearing the pink hat in the middle of the frame and all the other women are laughing and the champagne is on the table, it very much speaks to the highbrow, elite social scene that goes [on] at the races. For me, it was trying to include the different hats that say something about each individual [while] capturing that ambiance [of the] social scene.
A.T.: The bugler, and he’s well known—he’s been there for a really long time. He just represents the track. He’s a big part of it and he was very flirtatious with the ladies. Everybody wanted to meet him so it was nice to catch that moment.
S.P.: There is a bit of a peacock nature to the events you were covering.
M.M.: There’s a little bit of high society, if that’s the right term, which exists certainly in that image too.
A.T.: I think also you could look at this image and imagine—especially the one with the bugler—those ladies, the young women on the left, probably just dressing in everyday clothes. This is a place where people come to do this, to be peacocks. It’s an interesting thing. It’s part of the culture of it. It’s a place that you can go and dress up in, put on a hat. Where else can you do that these days?
M.M.: The magic of Saratoga—the races … private events—[is that] there is a sort of different strata of people that are going to the races. Some people are going there for the private events and other people are just going to play the ponies and they come in sometimes with coolers or whatever and hang out at picnic tables, that sort of thing. Trying to capture both of those was definitely something we were looking for.
S.P.: You both were allowed access to restricted areas, giving us glimpses into the culture behind closed doors as well. Tell us about working in those areas. Often the hidden areas reveal the most.
M.M.: I lucked out in that regard because most of the jockeys are men. There are a couple women jockeys but most are men, so I was allowed to go into the locker room … Amy was not allowed to do that. I was able to check them out before the races. They get on these little mechanical horses and they practice their form. In fact … they’re on rockers and springs, and they’ve adjusted one of them to represent a horse that is behaving in a specific way [so] you have to work harder to get [it] to run faster. They’d get on and practice their motion and staying in their crouch—it was really cool. It was great to go behind the scenes and check out what they were doing.
S.P.: So in this particular situation, the team assignment and two genders really worked to your advantage.
A.T.: That was helpful to have the gender diversity there because I wouldn’t have been able to cover that part of it. I might have been able to go in with just the women, but I think there were only one or two [women] jockeys. We all come to the table with different things, so that was fun. There are lots of nuanced areas … [b]ut that was pretty cut and dry.
M.M.: A big part of what we add to the coverage is that we live and breathe this stuff, certainly when we’re on assignment, either individually or together, in this case. [Photographers are] constantly talking about the story—What do we need? What do we have? What are we looking for?—and two heads are better than one. We’re always putting our heads together and thinking it through and talking about [the] story and what we are trying to illustrate and trying to find and capture … Just working together and talking through [the] story helped a great deal.
S.P.: The story says, “Racing isn’t just Saratoga’s passion, it’s a religious devotion.” Culture, community, passion: Were those elements easy to capture?
A.T.: I had never been there so I didn’t know it at all, but it was apparent instantly. Going back to the picture of the gentleman who was walking away from betting with the fedora on, I spoke to him right after that. I think this was our first day there [and] I was just getting oriented … [W]e were just entering the racetrack. We got there late in the afternoon and the light started getting nice. We were working on this picture and I was talking to the guy and his horse had just won and I was getting his name and contact information and he instantly started sharing how hard he had worked to train this horse. The pride was palpable. You could really feel it from him. I instantly understood that this was not so much about the money or that thrill of racing—that this was an endeavor for this man. It was a goal … a big body of work that he had done. And you could tell that he was so proud. There were lots of little moments like that where people would start talking about their horses or the training … and it’s a pretty rich, complex passion. It was really interesting to learn about.
M.M.: My connection with Saratoga is … [that] I was a sophomore in college studying photojournalism, and I had an internship at a newspaper in Glens Falls … which is about 20 minutes north of Saratoga. My job for the summer was to go and cover the races and find features and photograph the racing and the culture and all of that.
To come a few years later, to end up going back for National Geographic Traveler, was pretty awesome, because in a lot of ways, I kind of got a bit of my start photographically there. To return in this capacity, to have the time, and to be there with Amy, and to be a much better photographer now, years later, [and] to be able to go in and photograph it was pretty cool, and a lot of it was familiar. It was good that I went in knowing a little bit of what I was going to be seeing, but also, that can handcuff you a little bit, because it’s nice to really see with fresh eyes and for the first time. We’re always trying to do that as photographers—even if we’re approaching a scene or situation we’ve covered before, really trying to push ourselves to see it new, to see it as if we’re seeing it for the first time.
S.P.: The photograph of horses and polo players that opens the story immediately establishes summer in Saratoga Springs. Who took that photo? How did it arise?
M.M.: That was Amy’s image—it’s great. I have to say … [it] is really wonderful to work with another photographer that is so good, is just awesome, because even though I’ve been doing this for a long time you’re always learning. You’re seeing the way another photographer shoots. You’re looking at other photographers, looking at their take, or if you’re looking, how they shoot something: Oh, they saw it that way or they noticed that. It’s inspiring.
I remember specifically being at the polo match. Both Amy and I were there. We had sort of divvied up—I was going to go over to the other side of the field … where [the] spectators were. I was going to capture some of that culture, and Amy was going to stay on the other side, where the horses were. I had to walk past, essentially, that image of the horses and the polo players sitting on the horses … As I was walking past, I think I fired off a few frames, but it was difficult light. It’s very difficult to photograph people on horses when you’re on [the] ground, because the angles can be very challenging … I remember thinking, Uh, God, I don’t know what to do with this. This is difficult. I don’t know how to photograph this and make an interesting image. I think as I was walking by, Amy stopped and started shooting, and I looked and I was kind of like, I have no idea what she’s shooting. What is she seeing? Light is horrible—what’s she shooting? I continued on and, of course, I saw that image [later] and thought, That’s great! I totally didn’t shoot that; I totally missed it. I didn’t see it and she made this beautiful image. It’s just great. It’s inspiring. It makes you become a better photographer.
S.P.: Will you do it again?
A.T. and M.M.: Yeah.
A.T.: Yeah, we hope so. It would be great.
This interview has been edited and condensed.