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May 2, 2008
New York photographer Dan Nelken has documented the people, animals and activities of American County Fairs for several years now. His rich body of work is filled with warm color and light. It captures a bit of humor and some delightful quirky things. It also conveys a genuine sense of un-self-conscious personal pride that is essential to the whole County Fair mentality.
I watched the reactions of people who saw his photographs for the first time at a big exhibition in Houston recently. Without exception, people were smiling, pointing with gleeful recognition at this bit here, or that expression there. People get engaged when they see these photos, and they want to share their delight and enthusiasm.
Indeed, they are all endearing photos, made in a straightforward masterly manner (with a hand-held medium format camera, using only available light). The girl holding her prize-winning rabbit looks so comfortable and happy and completely in the moment, with the blue-ribbon tied to the open rabbit's cage behind her.
It's sometimes interesting to imagine how different photographers might photograph the same subject matter in wildly different ways. It would be so easy to stray into the "too-sweet" genre with all of this innocent feel-good stuff. And it would be just as easy to go the other way. I wonder what Diane Arbus would have done here, or Avedon, or Martin Parr? Would these happy and content people look like freaks under the glare of Weegee's flash?