Tony Leonard’s rarely seen photos on exhibit in Lexington

Aimee Brummer, left, and her mother, Pat Freeny, both from Paris, Ky., enjoyed the Tony Leonard Collection at Headley-Whitney Museum during a sneak peak on March 9.
Aimee Brummer, left, and her mother, Pat Freeny, both from Paris, Ky., enjoyed the Tony Leonard Collection at Headley-Whitney Museum during a sneak peak on March 9. Herald-Leader

The backstory of a new exhibit at Lexington’s Headley-Whitney Museum of Art featuring the work of famed photographer Tony Leonard is as captivating as the collection itself, those who knew him say.

While Leonard is known for capturing generations of Thoroughbreds with his camera, he produced thousands of other works over his career.

The images in the exhibit include Fred Astaire and horseman Leslie Combs at Hollywood Park; John Wayne at the Kentucky Derby; Cary Grant with horseman John Gaines; Zsa Zsa Gabor with horseman Preston Madden; Secretariat arriving at Claiborne Farm to retire; Queen Elizabeth II with jockeys in the paddock at Keeneland; Joe DiMaggio with Seattle Slew at Spendthrift Farm; Muhammad Ali at the Kentucky Derby; former University of Kentucky basketball players Sam Bowie and Rex Chapman; horse industry icon Marylou Whitney; and events such as Court Days in Mount Sterling.

The photos and personal artifacts in the “Tony Leonard Collection” exhibition, presented by Kentucky Bank, will be shown at the Headley-Whitney Museum of Art through June 19. The collection has been stored in a vault at Kentucky Bank in Paris.

Many of the photos were never viewed by anyone other than his wife, Adelle, and a few close friends.

The fate of the collection had been uncertain for years.

In 2009, the deteriorating medical, financial and living conditions of the Leonards came to the attention of authorities in Lexington, and the court made them wards of the state.

The state had control of Leonard’s extensive collection of negatives of Thoroughbred racing champions, celebrities and Bluegrass scenes.

In March 2010, the Herald-Leader highlighted the couple’s placement in a state guardianship program, which drew criticism at the time for being understaffed and limited by budget constraints. In May 2010, Leonard, his wife and their relatives won their effort in court to end the state’s control.

Leonard died in 2012, about three weeks shy of his 90th birthday. After his death, three of his acquaintances bought the rights to his collection and have worked since to be able to showcase it.

“Tony produced an astonishing body of work over more than 50 years, and his talent for capturing the magical moments in Thoroughbred history remains unmatched. We felt personally compelled not only to preserve his collection, but also to share it,” Bobby Shiflet, one of the collection partners who knew Leonard for more than 20 years, said in a statement. “Tony set the standard for equine photography, but he also produced beautiful, inventive and exciting photos of the people and landscapes he loved.”

Shiflet owns a frame shop in Paris and often worked with Leonard’s photographs.

“I couldn’t be happier that they ended up in Bobby’s control,” said Jill Bowman as she viewed the collection last week. Bowman was an employee of a nursing home where Leonard was staying when he was a ward of the state. She was among those who helped him and Adelle leave state guardianship.

Another collection owner, David Sorrell, the chief financial officer at Three Chimneys Farm, said in an interview, “It’s so great to see it out of the box and on the walls.”

Bloodstock agent John Adger from Texas is the third owner.

“We are accidental curators,” Shiflet said.

As part of the purchase agreement, the three cannot disclose the purchase price, Shiflet said.

The text that accompanies the 188 photos in the exhibit tells the story of Leonard’s life:

Tony Leonard started life as Leonard Anthony Bergantino on Aug. 8, 1922, in Cincinnati. After serving in the Army in World War II he became a professional entertainer; performing in nightclubs across the country, often with Adelle, a dancer. Adelle is still living at a Lexington nursing home.

Armed with a powerful voice, natural self-confidence and a charming smile, he performed at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, on Broadway and once sang the National Anthem at Yankee Stadium. During a 1960s visit to Lexington to perform at La Flame nightclub, the Leonards decided to stay.

A camera, given to him by his wife, changed Tony Leonard’s future. The former nightclub singer, who got his stage name from Bob Hope’s manager, found that his passion for horses, his obsession with perfection, and his artistic eye catapulted him to the forefront of equine photographers.

“Leonard had two personalities — the engaging storyteller with the kind of smile whose face would glow when he was given a compliment over a piece of work, and the other Tony — who could exasperate the most patient of clients as he barked orders and slung curse words while a wide-eyed groom held a stallion or a yearling he was trying to get into the perfect pose for a conformation photo,” the exhibit text said. “Just when everyone was about to throw their hands in the air and give up, there would come that split second when the horse’s ears were perked, his feet in perfect balance, his head turned just so, and the wind was still enough to leave the mane and tail alone — and Tony would capture it...”

Leonard shot his last Kentucky Derby in 2006, his last Breeders’ Cup in 2010, and made his last visit to Claiborne Farm in May 2012.

Martine Head, a board member at the museum, said for younger people who never got to see the great Thoroughbreds that Leonard photographed, “It’s just wonderful for them to be able to come here and look at these horses.”

He wanted to see his work kept together, Shiflet said in an interview. “I think Tony would be real proud.”

“It’s history that’s been catalogued throughout the years,” said Lexington photographer Jeff Rogers, who came to preview the exhibit last week because he knew Leonard. “It’s neat to be able to see a retrospective exhibit.”

Tom Hiles knew Leonard in the last years of his life. He said Leonard had shown him many of the photographs in the exhibit and had told Hiles how they were shot.

When he was at the exhibit last week, Hiles said, he could almost hear Leonard telling the stories again.

“You had this feeling that Tony was right there with you,” said Hiles.

“He certainly knew how to capture a moment,” said Gail Hart, another board member at the museum as she walked through the exhibit. “It’s everything I expected.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears

If you go

The Tony Leonard Collection presented by Kentucky Bank

Where: Headley-Whitney Museum of Art, 4435 Old Frankfort Pike

When: March 11 – June 19

Admission: adults $10, senior and students $8

Parking: Free