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Spotlight: The County Fair As Cosmic (and Fraught) Experience

By David Schonauer   Thursday November 14, 2019


Photographing an all-American county fair can be a nostalgia trip.

But in today’s America, it can also be a risky business.

Over the past summer, California-based photographer Arthur Drooker went to a number of county fairs in Northern California to shoot nighttime images of carnival rides. He wandered the midway at the Marin County Fair, the Santa Cruz County Fair, and several others, taking pictures of rides like Crazy Train, Mega Flip, Magnum, Zipper, Quasar, Viper, and Turbo Force.

“While fairgoers screamed at every twist and turn, holding on for dear life, I stood silent behind my tripod, photographing the blurs of color and patterns of light,” he writes of the work.
Drooker, as we noted in a 2016 profile, has made a name for himself for documenting American communities. For his book Conventional Wisdom, he spent years attending conventions of groups ranging from Abraham Lincoln impersonators and taxidermists to ventriloquists and fetishists of various kinds. At the heart of the work, we noted, are the twin notions of inclusivity and exclusivity — people banding together over common enthusiasms that others don't understand.

County fairs represent something entirely different. “They’re inexpensive. People go there for cheap thrills. Everyone is there for a good time,” Drooker says. Country fairs, which began in large part as agricultural expositions, still retain their earthy roots, he says. “There’s a wholesomeness to them,” Drooker says. “There’s a whiff of Normal Rockwell to them.”

And a whiff of intoxicating strangeness, out on the midway. Drooker’s goal was to capture the kaleidoscopic colors of brightly lit carnival rides.

“At first, I made wide shots to juxtapose the rides’ soaring, plunging, and spinning movements with the stillness of the fairgrounds. As I became familiar with the rides, I zoomed in, as if freeing the gravity-defying amusements from the Earth, and the photographs turned abstract, even astronomical. With this shift in focus, I transformed the midway into my own Milky Way,” he notes.

At one point, he thought about calling the series “Rides.” Then he showed some JPEGs to his sister. “She suggested the title ‘Cosmic Carnival,’ which is much much better,” he notes. The work is now available as a print series and as a book.

As Drooker undertook the project, he learned something about modern America — something he hadn’t expected, and something that has become an issue for a number of street photographers recently.

He began the series as a way to experiment with his iPhone's long-exposure mode, capturing light trails of carnival rides as they climbed and spun (below). On July 3, he was at the Marin County Fair, shooting with his iPhone, when three sheriff’s deputies approached him.

"We had a report that someone was going around taking photos of children," one of them said to me. I looked at the deputies, speechless. I was completely shocked,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even shooting people, so of course I wasn’t asking anyone’s permission to shoot.”

The deputies asked for his ID and his iPhone. “I was probably within my rights to refuse, but I just said, ‘Knock yourselves out,'” says Drooker. After looking at his pictures, the deputies told him to have a nice evening.

As we noted this summer, other photographers have had much worse experiences after photographing at county fairs.

“To me, it will forever be a rude awakening to the times we live in, when who makes a photo of what and where, no matter how public or innocent, can be the cause of instant suspicion,” he noted in a letter to PPD at the time.

“Now,” he said in a recent interview, “I can understand that someone who doesn’t know me could see me at the fair shooting with an iPhone, lingering around a ride, and go, ‘Hey, what’s this guy up to?’”

As time went on, Drooker exchanged his iPhone for a DSLR. “Interestingly, once I switched to the Canon 5D, using a tripod with a cable release, it became a completely different thing,” he says. “I looked quote-unquote more professional. People would go out of their way to duck and let me take pictures.”

1 Comments

  1. D. Lindemann commented on: November 15, 2019 at 12:52 a.m.
    SPECTACULAR! These shots are beautiful and among the most interesting I've seen in a long time. Each one is a gem, each one glows with radiance. Thanks, D. Lindemann

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