I was hooked on state fairs the minute I walked into the dairy pavilion at the Minnesota State Fair in the summer of 1977. 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. I'd never seen anything like it before. Mesmerized, I finally put the camera to my eye to record what was happening, mindful of the old saw "the camera never lies."
I spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the many acres of the fairgrounds, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of this bizarre and eclectic world. There were 4-H kids sleeping in the barns on stacks of hay next to their prize heifers, marching band majorettes standing proudly with their giant trophies at an awards ceremony, farmers peering over and under the latest John Deere tractors and farm machinery, families sitting on the grass eating corn dogs and cotton candy, people whooping and hollering along the midway as they tossed rings and threw softballs trying to win giant teddy bears. Everywhere you turned there were eager and excited faces, laughter and also looks of exhaustion from too much of a good thing. All I remember as I made my way back to my rental car to head to the airport was how good it felt being there. There was something comforting and reassuring about this state fair business where people could forget about their troubles, put aside the rigors of everyday living, and come to a place seemingly lost in time where all you were expected to do was simply have fun.
But for a visual person such as myself, there was something more going on, something that I couldn't quite put my finger on at the time. Years later, when I was researching this project, I ran across a quote from a Washington Post article by Christopher Corbett on the Ohio State Fair that summed up what I was feeling that day after my first exposure to a state fair. "It is a showplace of the spirit of Middle America . . . celebrating the best of the American heartland in ways that are both endearing and off-the-wall—often at the same time." It was that oddly American juxtaposition of the heartfelt and the huckstering, the totally weird and the comfortably familiar, the love of country and the love of self, the individualism and the mass marketing that made the extravaganza of a state fair so compelling to me and such a mother lode for visual exploration and photographic interpretation.
Over the years as I went on with my career as a magazine photojournalist for Time and Newsweek traveling on assignment to points around the globe, I kept thinking about doing a story on state fairs, a quintessentially American phenomenon, but I never found the time. During the national election years of '80, '84, and '88, I parachuted into various midwestern state fairs with presidential and vice presidential candidates as part of the traveling media horde that descends upon unsuspecting events and transforms them for a few hours into spectacles. In the brief time I spent at these fairgrounds, I was once again captivated by the action, diversity, smells, and sounds of these uniquely American celebrations. Finally, in 2003, I had the time and opportunity to head out on the road and explore what had been intriguing me for so many years and had made me smile anytime I'd heard or read the words "state fair." What was so compelling about these annual gatherings that they pull in more than twenty million Americans every year? Why were these convocations such a magnet for so many people in every geographic area of the country?
The first thing academics will tell you is that going to the state fair is a ritual, although the people I talked to at the fairs kept using the term "tradition"—"We always go every year"... "I've been going since I was a little kid"... "It's a tradition in my family." It seems that if your parents took you on an annual pilgrimage to the state fair when you were growing up, you're likely to bring your own kids when you become a parent. This wasn't the case with me, growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts. The closest I came to anything resembling a state fair was a third-rate circus that pulled into town once a year with a trainload of over-the-hill jungle animals too tired to growl or roar. (My only other experience was an evening visit to Maine's Topsham County Fair with some inebriated college fraternity brothers to do field research on "exotic dancers.") The more I talked to people, the more I heard the idea of the state fair being a "tradition": "I come back every year for the corn dogs"... "I love to watch the pie judging"... "I like to see what's new from John Deere"... "We can't wait to get back to the midway and go on the rides"... "I haven't missed a Grand Champion hog competition in eighteen years."
There's no question, however, that the underlying reason why people flock to state fairs is the pursuit of that time-honored, all-American combo of FUN & FOOD (not necessarily in that order). People intuitively realize that when they enter the fairgrounds they have only two obligations: to have a great time and to eat till they drop. The only anxiety you sense among new arrivals at a state fair is the confusion that's caused by the sudden sensory overload: hucksters on loudspeakers, the thunder of the midway rides, the crying, laughing, and screaming of kids, the blaring trumpets of high school marching bands, the eclectic musical overload of myriad singers and dancing troupes, and of course the hundreds of signs and flashing lights urging you to come see this or eat that. It's a daunting task coping with so much to see and do over so many acres, while at the same time dealing with a constant barrage of seductive aromas from all the standard "fair food"—corn dogs, ice cream, gyros, cotton candy, cheese fries, smoked turkey legs, pizza, barbecued ribs, popcorn, fried chicken, strawberry shortcake, deep-fried Twinkies, Polish sausage, roasted corn on the cob, and saltwater taffy, among other delectables.
Not to worry. In short order, intrepid fairgoers manage to rise to the challenge and begin eating their way through the fair while enjoying all manner of entertainment laid out in front of them. There's no heavy lifting required. Just pick your pleasure or go for whatever piques your interest. Scattered along the paths and streets and roadways are a never-ending series of sideshows featuring jugglers and acrobats, clowns and escape artists, magicians and alligator wrestlers, bear trainers and bird wranglers. Every day there's a major parade with marching bands, cheerleaders, a beauty queen or two, and plenty of American flags. On the dancing front alone, I saw performances by line dancers, tap dancers, clog dancers, square dancers, break dancers, ballroom dancers, flamenco dancers, polka dancers, and folk dancers. I heard all kinds of music, from karaoke to rap to yodeling to rock to country to jazz to bluegrass to church choirs—all performed live at pavilions and stages and halls throughout the fairgrounds. And the good news? It was all free (although on occasion it became painfully clear why local talent stays local).
For those who need their fun balanced by some cerebral stimulation or who have a twinge of guilt at their self-indulgence, they can take comfort in the mantra that state fairs are "educational" (and are often billed that way). There is much to be learned at a state fair if you're so inclined. Without even trying, just by walking around the fairgrounds taking photographs, I couldn't help but soak up all kinds of knowledge. There was the 4-H pavilion, where I learned about rabbit care and anatomy during "show-and-tell" competitions; the "Bug World" house, where I learned about the habits of African centipedes and American cockroaches; the "Honey Booth," where I learned about the wiles of the queen bee and how not to incite her drones; the "Food Pavilion," where I learned it was possible to make a variety of wonderful meals by using only Del Monte canned goods. On the medical front I learned about the warning signs of a heart attack, how to recognize skin cancer, and how to take my blood pressure at home. As a dog lover, I got tips on obedience training (for myself as well as my English bulldog, Cleopatra) and had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of watching a live spaying operation on a large alley cat, performed by a "special guest" veterinarian. And I heard over and over again from a twenty-foot-tall Smokey the Bear with a voice loop about how I could prevent forest fires.
In the great American tradition of free enterprise and unbridled capitalism, state fairs are also sales fairs. For anyone coming through the gates with some cash burning a hole in their pocket who can't wait to buy the latest gadget, or cure, or "revolutionary breakthrough"—welcome to the promised land. Entire buildings and huge tents are chockablock with salespeople touting everything from automatic massaging tables, to super mops, to eyeglass defoggers, to telescoping flagpoles, to hand-carved life-sized replicas of horny toads. You're limited only by how much you can carry and how quickly you can max out your credit cards. I've never seen so many people spellbound by the hypnotic cadences of world-class sales pitches hyping everything from "miracle" sponges that can soak up a pail of water in one go to a "diet belt" that can melt off the pounds while you're sleeping. Remarkably, nobody snickers or laughs at the end of these spiels, and the only sound you hear after the applause has died down is the constant clack-clack of the well-greased credit card machines sliding back and forth running up sales. (I myself succumbed to an Australian wide-brimmed bush hat that can fold up to the size of a napkin.)
The more days I spent wandering around state fairs all over the country in my official role as a professional observer (and an accredited member of the media), the more I came to realize that the real backbone of state fairs, and what makes them unmistakably American, is their celebration of "competition"—any and all kinds, highbrow and lowbrow, from the mundane to the inane. Americans don't care what the contest is so long as they are either competing in it or getting to watch someone else compete. Even though rooting for the underdog is ingrained, Americans love a winner. This striving to be the best, to be #1, is embedded in the DNA of the great American gene pool, and the state fair is definitely a showcase for it.
Naturally, state fairs have all the macho, rough-and-tumble stuff you'd expect: wrestling, boxing, mutton bustin', and tractor pulling—and that's just the competition for kids under twelve. For adults, there's weight lifting, arm wrestling, demolition derbies, steer roping, and bull riding. On the less strenuous side, you have everything from grocery-bagging competitions (with a chance to go to the national championships in Las Vegas) to 4-H public-speaking contests to horseshoe tossing. And then there are the perennial favorites like corn-dog-eating and pie-baking contests, animal costume and quilt-making competitions, and myriad championships for marching bands, baton twirlers, cheerleaders, and dancers. However, at the heart of every state fair are the dozens of animal competitions—rabbits and goats, poultry and pigeons, sheep and hogs, cows and steers, llamas and geese, dogs and cats, mini-donkeys and horses. Every competitor in this arena, regardless of how old or young, dreams of going home with a Best in Show trophy or a Grand Champion ribbon presented by one of the many specialized fair "queens" (Miss Holstein, for instance).
In the end, when I took a step back from all the commotion and crowds, what struck me the most was how a state fair reflects the American spirit—patriotic, entrepreneurial, fun-loving, competitive, traditional. But above all, a state fair is "democratic"—everyone is welcome and it's affordable for all. Rich or poor, young or old, regardless of color or ethnic background, everyone has the same opportunity to enjoy, to learn, to cheer, to laugh, and to be surprised. I couldn't help thinking that if aliens ever landed on Earth and you only had a few hours to help them understand America, all you would have to do is take them to any state fair. For me, a state fair is a microcosm of America—in all its glory and weirdness—at any given point in time.