Popping up in parking lots and grassy fields, fairs transform the days of late summer into local gatherings for fried foods, dizzying rides, livestock shows, and spectacle. There you can indulge in foods you can’t — and maybe shouldn’t — get anywhere else, like funnel cakes dusted with powdered sugar and fried green tomatoes with ranch dipping sauce. You can watch the 4H Club kids in their too-big cowboy boots leading even bigger animals into an arena, or see which baked goods and artworks got the blue ribbons. You can ride on looping, spinning, creaking rides to the blasting music of the nearest top 40 station, the night illuminated by the kaleidoscopic lights of these carnival contraptions.
The Los Angeles-based photographer Pamela Littky spent the summer of 2015 driving thousands of miles through 15 states to capture these moments of the fair. American Fair, out now from Kehrer Verlag, mingles together scenes from across the country, whether the “Get your photo with a LIVE WOLF” sign in Hampton, Georgia, or the snow cones the color of blue neon in Cimarron, Kansas, to suggest some commonality of experience. Captions give each location, and the demographics shift from Indianapolis to Del Mar, California, but the spirit, and the luminous rides, stay the same.
“Notwithstanding the ever-evolving social and cultural fabric of the United States, these fairs continue to draw people from all backgrounds and upbringings,” Littky writes in American Fair. “They celebrate the heartland. They celebrate diversity. They celebrate community. And by doing so, they showcase the power and meaning of some of the most unifying and nostalgic ideals of our American culture and society.”
Fairs started mostly as agricultural showcases. Now with farming and ranching not as central to the American economy, fairs are less about livestock and more about local life. However, there are still some rodeos and displays of prized steers, particularly in places such as Gordon, Nebraska. Even here on the Great Plains, Littky is more interested in the quiet, human moments, and the animals stay blurred or out of frame when they appear. Hay tumbles out a door behind some young women dressed for a beauty pageant in Sedalia, Missouri, with one of their group sitting forlornly in a chair, her knee wrapped in a bandage. An expanse of land in Kansas, sprawls into the distance while our eye is drawn to the small riders on a tall slide which probably looks kitschy in daylight, but becomes phantasmagoric when illuminated at night. Huge grain silos tower near the Zipper in Dodge City.
This is Littky’s third monograph, each of which has concentrated on a particular American community. In the 2016 The Villa Bonita, she explored the contained society of this Hollywood apartment building which was built for the huge crews on Cecil B. DeMille’s films; in the 2014 Vacancy, she examined the rural communities surviving in the harsh environment of the gateway to Death Valley. Carnivals and fairs are hardly untrodden territory for photography, yet Littky’s photographs consider a shared nostalgia for these annual events, and what that means in the 21st century. There may be no portraits of cattle or sheep in American Fair, but there are also no lingering shots on smartphones. Although these photographs were taken in 2015, they’ll likely spark memories of anyone who grew up going to fairs. Still, the inflatable AK47 decorated with the American flag slung over a man’s back in Saratosa, Florida, or the wall of art in Selma, Alabama, where someone contributed a drawing of a gun, are embedded with quiet questions about this binding culture.