In the summer of 2015, far from the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, Thomas Prior was in California with some time to kill. The photographer had just finished an assignment and had another scheduled a couple weeks later. Instead of flying back to his home in Brooklyn, a friend convinced him to visit a local horse track.
“It has a cool color scheme, simple, a lot of history, dudes betting, horses and little guys riding them,” Prior, 36, tells TIME about Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif .
Prior wasn't interested in the sport of horse racing or even spending more time with the project. It was something to do between jobs. But the body of work – including timeless portraits of muddy jockeys, powerfully built horses and quiet portraits of visitors, all with his lush desaturated color – symbolized something more important about Prior. His inner compulsion to constantly make pictures paired with his watchful eye has brought him long deserved attention both for his personal work as well as his editorial and commercial assignments.
He followed his passion for photography from the age of 13 when he bought his first camera, a Pentax K-1000. Short sequences from movies replayed over in his head for years at a time, inspired by the color or light or his gut reaction to what he saw.
Although he makes still images, there is often an actual or implied motion in his work. His photos of bucking bulls at an Arizona rodeo or his series about a diving board off the coast of Ireland involve an activity Prior dissects with his camera. He avoids waxing poetic on his own work, believing the photographs speak for themselves. And they do. His mastery at simplifying a photograph to its core elevates the individual moment to something universal.
Color is the other half of what makes Prior’s photographs so unique. He took a color photography class in high school and continued working in the darkroom printing his own color negatives. When he bought a digital camera in 2008, he had to entirely relearn his coloring process to match the quality he had found with film.
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in New York, Prior began assisting other photographers, like Luis Sanchis and Jason Nocito, on editorial and commercial jobs, while taking sporadic retouching jobs on the side. The time spent assisting taught him a lot about the condensed creative process needed for time-limited commercial assignments. It also allowed him to develop on his own. At the time, he says, he lived cheaply, saving money to pay rent and take trips to shoot his own projects.
When he finally decided to work for himself his photographic style attracted many. Whether for editorial clients like TIME, Vogue or California Sunday Magazine, or commercial jobs for Under Armor or Nike, Prior gets something out every experience. “I haven’t had a commercial job that I haven’t enjoyed on some level,” says Prior. “They’ve all either been crazy learning experiences or I’ve had a lot of fun.”
Prior’s driving force is still the enjoyment he gets from photography. “I could be taking a picture for a table of contents and I’m excited,” says Prior. “At the end of the day, it’s about making photos. It’s cool that this goes on a building or this goes on the cover but at the end of the day it’s nice to just get pictures.”
Thomas Prior is a photographer based in New York.
Myles Little, who edited this photo essay and commissioned Prior, is a Senior Photo Editor at TIME.
Michael Bucher is a contributor to TIME LightBox.