“Back in 2005, I made a list of possible subjects to photograph and taking photos at a horse racing meeting was top of the list,” says Martin Amis, who first went to the races as a child with his father. “I have vivid memories of these childhood days out; the sea of interesting faces, the hubbub of activity and the thrill of winning.”
When he started Amis had no plans to make a book but, after taking a break from the project in 2009, he realised it had the potential. Now he’s finally launching The Gamblers, which he’s made with RRB Publishing. “I put together a dummy version back then, but this was a time when the photobook business really started to take off, so I left it as a work-in-progress,” he says.
“I mentioned the project to Rudi Thoemmes at RRB in 2016, and with his encouragement I decided to revisit the work and shoot more material to finish the book.”
The photobook business he mentions is his online shop, Photobookstore.co.uk, which he set up in 2006. Stocked with a well-curated selection of the most interesting books, and including an insider’s-eye blog which includes guest writers such as Alec Soth, Rob Hornstra, and Laia Abril, it’s been a great success.
“Initially I was aiming to just make a little money to support my photography by sourcing and selling some hard to find titles,” explains Amis. “However, it soon became apparent that there was a burgeoning interest in photobooks and a real opportunity to sell them online.”
Exposed to such a great wealth of photobooks, Amis says they’ve helped inspire his own work. “I am a great admirer of photographers such as Krass Clement, Tom Wood, Chris Killip, and Martin Parr, so without a doubt some of their books have been an influence,” he says.
He first got into photography after buying a 35mm camera and a single roll of black-and-white film during a trip to New York. After shooting some initial rolls, he was gripped. “Although I didn’t have any formal photography education, things developed quite quickly from there and I received a few awards and recognition in those early days,” he says.
Working on The Gamblers for more than a decade, he was drawn to people rather than the horses themselves, and the “repeating set of rituals” that the crowd revolves around. “They make their selection, place a bet, visit the parade ring, find their horse and colours, take position in the stands to cheer on their selection and then perhaps finally visit the bar to celebrate or commiserate, and so forth,” he says.
“Amongst this constant flow is a great diversity of spectators, whether it be die-hard local punters who attend every meeting to upper class social gatherings, or boisterous stag parties. When photographing, I must admit that I’m always drawn to the dedicated gamblers who assemble around the bookmakers. Even on a quiet Monday at a small track in the countryside, a faithful tribe of followers will gather to bet and watch the races and it’s pretty difficult not to get caught up in the excitement.”
It sounds like intensive work, yet Amis often allows himself to get involved, placing bets on the races himself. He says it helps him get into the action, and also helps keep his photography discreet. “Of course, during the race itself most people are naturally caught up with what’s happening on the track, so they tend not to worry about being photographed,” he says. “When a few have asked what I’m doing, they are simply relieved I am not from the press.”