Looking For America: Photographer Joel Wintermantle

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Illinois State Fair, 2009,

Illinois State Fair, 2009, Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle

Like the Simon and Garfunkel song, photographer Joel Wintermantle went off to look for America. This time through its State Fairs

The advantage of being such a young nation is that America has had to create its own myths, or, go in search of its own myths. Whether its poets like William Carlos Williams or in movies like Easy Rider. And photographers from Walker Evans to Robert Frank to Stephen Shore have catalogued America in images. Partly due to the country’s scale and partly due to its diversity, photography projects in search of America have been as much about cataloguing looks, features and landscapes as they have been about its documenting (see also Barber Shops of America). Joel Wintermantle’s State Fairs project is no different.

Wintermantle lives in Chicago where he is “a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune, and other nationally recognized newspapers”, and began shooting State Fairs in 2009. We discovered Joel’s work through a Kickstarter project, which  amazingly didn’t raise the required funds. But the project is still going ahead.

He has already shot a number of fairs and they are an extraordinary window on a different kind of America, not urban, or even suburban, a world busy with its own commerce, people and rituals. Wintermantle’s photograph are rich with life and colour, with an obvious feel for the people and culture. But these are also universal, like the teenage boys locked into the frame of their screens bored and oblivious to the teeming life surrounding them – and the pig sneaking into the frame.

Teenage boys use a laptop while sitting in their family's space in the pig exhibition area at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Teenage boys use a laptop while sitting in their family’s space in the pig exhibition area at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Or the aftermath of competition, the distance between the glamour and myth and the reality.

A fair queen carries a ribbon across the horse exhibition grounds following a round of competition at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA, on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

A fair queen carries a ribbon across the horse exhibition grounds following a round of competition at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA, on Saturday, Aug. 21, 2010. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Or just a shared private moment between sisters.

Michigan State Fair,

Michigan State Fair, Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle

Like another midwesterner, songwriter Sufjan Stevens who planned concept albums about America’s 50 states, Wintermantle’s project seems wildly ambitious. But anything that aims to capture the scale of this nation needs to see beyond the possible.

Why State Fairs?

Why State Fairs, that is a great question.  Well, there are many reasons why I felt it was important for me to embark on this challenge.  When I first began the project back in 2009 it was following an election year and, as I usually do during election years, I became fascinated by the dynamics of US culture.

This has a lot to do with my background I suppose.  I have always lived in a suburban or large urban environment (suburban Detroit, New York City, and currently Chicago) and I feel that there is so much about this country I am  unfamiliar with. I began wondering what could I photograph to help further my understanding of our culture and who we are as a people.

It seemed that State Fairs were a unique opportunity to observe a celebration of a state’s identity; sort of a microcosm of a state’s population all interacting with each other.  People from the state’s urban environments interact with people from the agricultural communities, politicians interact with the public, and so on, and I thought it would be a great way to observe and hopefully answer some of the questions I was developing about my country.

From a photographic standpoint, at the time I was feeling pretty burned out by the routine of assignments I was covering.  I was feeling the need to photograph something fun, colorful, full of life, and most importantly just for me. I somehow had never shot a state fair before and it just seemed like a lot of fun with no shortage of visual opportunities.

A woman yells at her rooster, encouraging it to crow, during the rooster crowing contest at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, MI, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

A woman yells at her rooster, encouraging it to crow, during the rooster crowing contest at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, MI, on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Lastly, after photographing my first state fair for the project (Illinois) in 2009 and starting to do more research on where to focus next, I learned that it was going to be the final year for the Michigan State Fair because of finances.  Wow, I thought to myself, how very sad.  I had memories of going down to the fair about every year as a child, my sisters playing in violin and cello concerts there, being afraid to go on the ferris wheel (I am afraid of heights), and just always having a great time at this special event.  So, shortly after photographing the Illinois State Fair, I made a trip back home to Michigan to photograph the final Michigan State Fair which had been the nation’s oldest, running since 1849.

After photographing the final Michigan State Fair, I realized that other state fairs were facing financial obstacles.  More recently, the Nevada State Fair was discontinued in 2011 after running since 1874 and the discussion about whether or not to continue state fairs in other states comes up year after year. There is a chance that several of these fairs will not be around in the future and I feel they are a slice of Americana that needs to be documented.

When did you start shooting and how many have you shot so far?

I first started America: Through Our State Fairs in the summer of 2009 beginning with the Illinois State Fair and quickly followed up by Michigan, learning of their closure. In 2010 I photographed the Iowa State Fair, one of the nation’s largest, and with this only have a total of three completed.  I’ve been on a short hiatus from the project to start a family.

A woman looks out while working at a food stand at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2009.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

A woman looks out while working at a food stand at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Thursday, Aug. 29, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Your photos present such a rich source of colours, signage, strange juxtapositions, the everyday and the eccentric. Is there a common iconography of State Fairs?

Ha, thanks for the compliment John.  I’m not sure there is actually a common iconography of State Fairs, but I think because of who I am and the way I photograph, certain common motifs will stand out as I continue the project. What I have noticed is that I find a lot of similar things from fair to fair: colorful midways, agricultural expositions, unusual foods, and so on; however, each state has their own nuance.  I hope to capture the unique nature of each state, while continuing to find the threads (however serious or eccentric they may be) that bind the states and the people.

An amusement worker runs a shooting game as a family gets ready to play at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, MI, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

An amusement worker runs a shooting game as a family gets ready to play at the Michigan State Fair in Detroit, MI, on Monday, Sept. 7, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

What has the project so far told you about America and its culture?

So far, this project has provided tremendous insight and has been valuable in helping to accomplish my original goal of learning who we are as a country.  Inevitably, while photographing I talk quite a bit with people. These discussions have proved invaluable.  The stories I hear – the difficulties small meat farmers face, the lifestyle of a travelling midway worker, and the story of someone who helps out with the family business before going back to college, just to name a few – don’t always translate to photos but are incredible learning experiences.  For me the project has reinforced my idea that Americans are proud, and especially proud of the hard work that people perform to sustain a livelihood.

A teenage girl tries to corral a pig during competition at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Friday, Aug. 29, 2009.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

A teenage girl tries to corral a pig during competition at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, IL, on Friday, Aug. 29, 2009. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Visually, how different is it from your day job as a photographer – the people, spaces, colours…

Photographing a state fair is considerably different and much more refreshing visually than my usual day.  Much of what I shoot on a day-to-day basis are portraits (business and location), community journalism, and other features.  As much as I love my job, most of my assignments don’t take place in environments as visually rich.

What is your favorite image? I have too many…from the boys listening to music, to the woman shouting at the chicken, to the Queen and the Cowboy…

In regards to this project, I haven’t given a whole lot of thought as to what my favorite image is but there are some that stand out for sure.  The frame with the kid holding the chicken (although you can’t see anyone’s face)…

Michigan State Fair (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

Michigan State Fair, 2009, Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle

….the amusement worker with the red mohawk blowing on the barrel of the bubble gun, and lastly the two women singing during the old fashioned Hymn Sing at First Church at the Iowa State Fair, I just love the juxtaposition of the two women’s outfits.

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Congregation members sing during the Old-Fashioned Hymn Sing at the First Church at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA, on Sunday, Aug 22, 2010. (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

…and most unexpected/surprising image

As for the most unexpected or surprising image, the one that sticks out the most is the evening shot at the Iowa State Fair where the amusement worker with the red mohawk wig is blowing on the barrel of the bubble gun.  I was actually walking out of the fair on my first night of photographing when I saw this scene out of the corner of my eye and started photographing it and got a few frames I was really happy with.

A worker wearing a red mohawk wig shoots off a bubble gun at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA, on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010.  (Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle)

A worker wearing a red mohawk wig shoots off a bubble gun at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, IA, on Friday, Aug. 20, 2010, Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle

To a degree it seems like all of my favorite images from this project have been unexpected or surprising.  I’ll go into a situation with an idea of what I’m looking for and have fortunately walked out with something better and completely unexpected.  I am always pushing to go above and beyond the typical shot from a horse show, rodeo, demolition derby – I like to find the unexpected in the otherwise typical or mundane.

Where next for this project?

Now that I am feeling somewhat settled into the routine of family life I am looking to return to photographing the project.  The road ahead will be challenging as it depends on fundraising via Kickstarter and other means.  Unfortunately, my first attempt at fundraising to photograph the Florida State Fair a few months ago was unsuccessful but I am looking to approach some things differently for my next fundraising attempt.  In the meantime, I am looking to photograph as many midwestern State Fairs as possible throughout the summer.

Thanks again to you and Image Source for the chance to discuss America: Through Our State Fairs.  I really appreciate it!

Michigan State Fair

Michigan State Fair, Photo copyright Joel Wintermantle

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