'State Fair': a Weird Familiarity

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Monday, June 5, 2006; 11:56 AM

When the Washington area recently went through a slightly hellacious spell of heat and humidity that could only presage worse to come, I began counting the weeks until my wife and I pack up the SUV, including our two cats, and head north to Maine for the summer.

Besides its usual attractions--including the fact that we spend every night in July and August sleeping under a quilt with no air conditioning--Maine also offers any number of things that, to a native New Yorker and Bronx boy, once seemed so Small Town America and Norman Rockwell quaint that I couldn't believe they still existed.

Fourth of July in a small Maine town, for example. The major attraction is a town's small collection of emergency vehicles meandering down the main street, sirens blaring, bells clanging, while kids on board throw candy to the crowd.

Baked bean suppers and lobster feasts, usually held at the town's grange hall or in a local church basement, or, if you are lucky, under perfect summer skies at the town dock.

Weekly bingo--or Beano, as it's called Down East--also at the grange, or perhaps at the VFW post.

And, of course, fairs. County Fairs, State Fairs, all manner of festivals and fetes, all devoted to what photographer Arthur Grace has called "that oddly American juxtaposition of the heartfelt and the huckstering, the totally weird and the comfortably familiar..."

Grace, once a big dog news magazine photojournalist, has come a long way since he regularly logged thousands of air miles for Time, Newsweek and other publications. His first book, Choose Me: Portraits of a Presidential Race, captured as few others have the exhaustion, exhilaration, foolishness and fervor of a US presidential campaign (in this case, the 1988 race that saw a host of wannabes swimming in the primaries, followed by the ultimate rout of Democrat Michael Dukakis by Republican George H.W. Bush.)

Then, moving beyond Washington to points west, including Hollywood, Grace produced another classic three years later in Comedians. This trenchant behind-the-scenes look at the world of comedy and the men and women who people it, illustrated Grace's ability to blend into his surroundings and capture our funny men and women onstage and off. His ability to go beyond the obvious in both books was thrilling. I am reminded of two pictures in particular: Democratic congressman Richard Gephardt, sitting at a lunch counter in Manchester, NH, staring exhausted into the middle distance, a ketchup bottle and empty milk shake glass in front of him. The second photo, a symphony of dark and light, shows the late comic Sam Kinison from behind and backstage. He is hunched over, holding onto something for support, his wild hair and bandana raked by stage light. Is he psyching himself before a performance or trying to keep from retching after one? It doesn't matter--we've never seen this before.

In his new book, State Fair (University of Texas Press, $34.95), Grace now documents the overwhelmingly familiar, yet even here he manages to see the everyday with a new eye. And that ain't easy my friend. You try it.

"I was hooked on State Fairs the minute I walked into the dairy pavilion at the Minnesota State Fair in the summer of 1977," Grace writes in his Introduction.

"A disembodied voice was booming over the loudspeakers giving a 'play-by-play' of the butter sculpture competition. I thought I was hearing things, but as I moved my way through the crowd, sure enough there was an earnest young man having at it with a sculpting blade on a huge block of refrigerated butter that was slowly changing into a bust of a beautiful woman. I didn't know whether to laugh or applaud..."

For many journalists, especially those covering politics, quick in-and-outs at a state or county fair with a candidate are par for the course. They are mainly photo ops--almost always tightly managed and staged--and rarely provide anything of substance, unless you count the corndog grabbed on the fly, and maybe a small beer, before you pile back onto the press bus and head to the next event in God knows where.

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