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Sarge - Legendary Pioneer Of Show Ring Photography

by Bob Funkhouser

“A genius. I truly believe the man was a genius,” said photographer Doug Shiflet who trained under H. Leon Sargent and later shared the ring with him at the World’s Championship Horse Show as co-photographers for 18 years until Sarge’s retirement in 2000. “He was very inquisitive. He wanted to know the make-up of everything; not just that chemicals or equipment worked, but what they were made of and how and why they worked.

“He had in-depth knowledge about a lot of subjects, not just photography. We spent a lot of time together and he shared his life stories and knowledge.”

Genius. Fighter pilot. Musician. Storyteller. Big game guide. Gunsmith. Horse show photographer. Take your pick; Sarge was a master of many things and a true character that will never be forgotten. His March 28 death had many in the industry recalling their favorite Sarge memories. Although Sarge didn’t let anyone know his age, he was thought to have been 85.

Born and raised in Memphis, Tenn., Sarge remained a part of the Memphis culture throughout his life although his ventures took him to many parts of the country and the world. His parents, Kenny and Dorothy Catherine, laid the groundwork for a couple of his early interests. Kenny Sargent was a well-known big band singer and Sarge inherited his love of music and began playing drums at an early age. At the age of 12, his mother paid a dollar for Sarge to go up in a plane with Vern Omlie, a famous World War I pilot who reportedly let the young lad take the controls. At the age of 14, he started working for a local barbecue place (another love of Sarge) to make enough money for flying lessons.

“I’d save my money until I had four dollars to go take a flying lesson,” said Sarge in a 1995 Horse World Magazine interview. “Flying was different then. If you could take off, go around the field and land, you got a license. One time I landed on the parade ground of my high school in a Piper Cub just to see if I could do it.”

Photography became a hobby of his during the teen years as well. He viewed it as a great way to meet girls. His earliest post-school job was working for a chain portrait studio that sold coupons door to door for photos. He befriended the guy who did the door to door selling, and bored with the door to door job, the friend convinced Sarge they should enlist in the Army Aviation Cadets, the branch of the service that precluded our modern day Air Force. Strong willed and with nerves of steel, Sarge was just the type of person that made an ace fighter pilot and his career included some 75 missions in Europe and North Africa.

Following his combat missions, Sarge served in an Army program that mapped the world from the air. He served as co-pilot on these global flights before returning to the civilian ranks in 1945. One of his first stops was a legendary drum shop in New York where he purchased a set of drums and joined the Musicians’ Union. Much like a horse trainer’s life, he played with several bands, getting fired and hired on a regular basis, all the while traveling the country. It was his deep love of jazz music that kept him plugging away, all the while still taking pictures on the side.

It was actually his stint in the music business that opened the door for what would become his most masterful craft, horse show photographer. He was playing for a bandleader that did a lot of horse shows and other equine events. One night they were set up in center ring of a big show and a guy came in the ring in between classes to do a dressage presentation. His horse had another idea that evening and threw the Colonel. Running loose, the horse went through the music stand, smashing the drum set of one Harry Leon Sargent.

“I’m sitting there crying because I only had the one set of drums,” said Sarge in the 1995 Horse World interview. “One of the judges, John Coopwood, a walking horse judge, came up to me, kind of pointed at what was left of my drums and said, ‘Is this all you can do?’

“I said, ‘No, I can make pictures.’ He said, ‘Can you take a picture of a horse?’ I said, ‘Hell! Anyone can take a picture of a horse.’ He pointed to the show photographer and said, ‘See that man over there? He’s putting two kids through college, drives a nice car and travels everywhere and all he does is take pictures of horses.’”

Photographer Jay McClaskey was less than helpful when approached by Sarge but that didn’t discourage the determined, suddenly out of work musician, who also happened to love photography. It just so happened there was a Saddlebred trainer who was coming along in Memphis at the time and he was more than willing to give Sarge the chance to practice at his barn.

It reportedly didn’t go well at first. Sarge found out that just anyone couldn’t shoot a horse. He was actually ready to give up but convinced himself to give it one more try. As Paul Raines was working Request Performance for Sarge, something clicked in. Instead of trying to hit the action shot as the front knee was coming up, Sarge found another way to gauge his timing – a secret he wasn’t willing to reveal at the time.

Sarge hurried home to his makeshift dark room and sure enough he was on to something and thus, the unretouched action shot was born. At the time, the top “photographers” were more like artists. At the horse shows all they shot were presentation pictures. They would go to trainer’s barns and take action shot of the horses working and the would go home and raise legs, put long necks and fine ears on and change the backgrounds. The horse industry truly lost the photographic history of decades of show horses because all of the pictures looked like the ideal horse.

During the late ‘40s, Sarge’s career was taking off shooting Saddlebred and walking horse shows and doing farm work. He was also doing some crop dusting to help pay the bills. Lo and behold there would be another set back. During his previous stint in the service, Sarge signed a U.S. Army Air Corps Reserve document and when the Korean War broke out, Uncle Sam came knocking again. From 1950 to ’53, Sarge flew tactical missions against the North Koreans.

This time when he left the service and returned home he made sure he was free and clear from war duties. Sarge basically started over, opening a portrait studio in Memphis and playing drums with his band at night. However, the horse show itch stayed with him. His studio was doing quite well shooting society weddings and the like but the lure of horse show photography was too much. He closed his studio in 1955 and in ’56 was hired by Baton Rouge to be its official photographer. The next year he was also hired to do Lexington Junior League, a show he shot for the next 15 years.

His work was in demand at the nation’s best shows. For nearly a decade, he shot Louisville, the Illinois State Fair, Lexington Junior League, the Florida circuit (which consisted of eight shows at the time), the Southwest circuit and the American Royal.

Technology was also changing at the time and the strobe light was becoming available for commercial use. The electronic flash replaced the hard to use flash bulbs which were big and hot.

Sarge was the benefactor of several horsemen who helped him along the way. Charlie Houston was credited with turning Sarge to fulltime unretouched photos. In the Horse World interview, Sarge said, “I was at Oklahoma City and he came up to me and said why don’t you cut out this B.S.? Stop making horses look like owners wished they looked and show them how they are. He said to stamp unretouched on the pictures and I’d get mobbed.”

Houston proved to be right as the emblem reading “Sargent Unretouched” adorned the pictures of the Saddlebred industry’s greatest horses and trade publications. It was at this time that Sarge also began shooting horses at different angles instead of the standard flat-sided shot that had always used.

With a flamboyant personality and pioneering ideas that changed the way horse show photography was done, Sarge soon became one of the most recognized icons in the industry. He became friends with some of the most influential trainers, owners and show managers. Sarge could hobnob with the elite and throw down with the boys back at the barn like no other.

“I remember we are at Statesville (N.C.) one year when it was a really big show,” recalled longtime show manager Bill Munford. “A few us were at a local restaurant after the show one night having a few drinks and some how Sarge started a pie fight. One of the trainers was playing around and dropped a pie on Sarge’s head and back then he had that really frizzy hair. Sarge went to the owner and asked him for another pie and he told him that was the last one. However, the owner filled a pie pan with whip cream and Sarge fired it back at the trainer who had gotten him. Whip cream and pie were flying everywhere. It was something else and we decided we should probably leave about the time the police were pulling up. He was quite a prankster. You hear some of these stories about Sarge and think, ‘There’s no way that could have happened.’ Well, I found out over the years most of them did.”

Despite his antics and strong personality, Sarge was held in the highest esteem for his work. He was the first to do unretouched show photography; the first to have an unretouched four color cover on an equine publication; the first to shoot victory pass pictures; the first to provide overnight proofs and prints; and the first to deliver matted and sprayed 16 x 20s overnight.

“In my lifetime he’s the greatest Saddlebred photographer there has ever been,” stated Doug Shiflet. “I would like to think I was close, but in his prime none of us could touch what Sarge could do. He was the first to shoot the front angle and he was a master at it. I learned so much working for him. Daddy [Claude Shiflet] told me if I was serious about getting into horse photography I should learn from the best. Sarge was very stern but also very plain and simple to understand and follow. He didn’t try to overwhelm you with his knowledge. He was a very good teacher, especially when it came to mass-producing black and white prints. He called it batch printing. When I worked for him at Louisville he would mark the proofs and at the end of the day I would have 200 to 300 prints to do. I was also impressed at how well he paid and how he took care of his help.”

“I think the world of him. He was like a father to me,” added Stoney Brannon who as a teenager worked for Sarge in Memphis while putting himself through private high school. “He taught me how to print with accuracy and speed and he also taught me about life. The biggest thing he taught me was about respect for others.”

Sarge went through about as many marriages as he did careers, however, as he said, it took him a while to get it right but that he did with his wife of 27 years, Julie. Julie became the driving force in the dark room and proved to be a great printer. She’d work all night printing many 16 x 20s and then deliver them box seat-to-box seat the next day.

“Sarge would pick out a picture he thought you should buy and blow it up and bring it to you,” said Bill Munford. “If he thought it was good, he thought you should buy it and he wouldn’t be too happy if you didn’t.”

Some of the many tales of Sarge include him ripping up or pouring a drink on prints in front of owners if they didn’t buy the print and in some cases wouldn’t shoot those people again. In today’s terminology it was, “Sarge being Sarge.”

“Although he would get mad if you wouldn’t buy it, he also wouldn’t sell you a bad picture; he wouldn’t even show you the proofs. If they weren’t good, your proof folder would be empty. There were pictures that would have been good enough, but if he didn’t think they were spectacular, you never saw them.”

Volumes could be written about the many lives of H. Leon Sargent but what we will most remember about him is what he did for horse show photography. He paved the way for many of today’s talented photographers.

“When he decided to step down at Louisville he called me and told me I was the guy that should replace him,” said Howie Schatzberg, now the co-official photographer with Doug Shiflet. “He was very positive about me stepping in. I was so honored to receive a call from someone like him. It was like the President had just called.”

As an equine journalist and historian, this writer was also profoundly touched by the work of Sarge. Like anyone who came in contact with him, we had our rounds and differences, but when you least expected it, Sarge would come to the rescue. While he mostly showed a rough and gruff persona, he really did have a heart of gold. Every single person I interviewed made that statement to me.

When it’s all said and done, what I will most appreciate about the legend can be summed up in one simple word – unretouched! It is truly disheartening that those of us in the industry today will never know what the horses of several decades looked like because of the artistry that was applied to every picture. And with the advancement of today’s digital photography and photo shop programs, I can only pray that we never regress back to the days of creating the ideal horse through photography instead of using the skills of truly great photographers.

May we all forever honor the work and genius of the greatest show horse photographer ever with the word: unretouched.

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