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Fried Dough and Photographs
Who doesn't love the fair?
When I was a kid, one of the things I would look forward to every year was going to the fair. The LA County Fair was massive and in elementary school we always got free tickets—I think they were stapled to our report cards, but I could be wrong. Although I moved around a lot as a kid, it seemed like we never lived very far from the fairgrounds, which are right next to the Pomona Raceway. My dad would take us there to watch the NHRA Winternationals every year and see people like “Big Daddy” Don Garlits and Don “The Snake” Prudhomme drive like bats out of hell down the 1/4 mile. I remember reading that at one point the LA County Fair was the largest county fair in the nation, but I don’t know if that’s still true. That said, to a 10-year-old, it was huge.
Even as a kid, I never really had an interest in going on the rides in the Fun Zone—I think I just didn’t trust the idea of rides that get taken apart and put back together. There was a giant slide that you went down on a burlap sack that I liked to go on, but that was up year-round, even when the fair was closed, so it always felt safer somehow. I much preferred looking through the various pavilions, and of course the fair food—although this was decades before deep-fried everything. My favorite part was always seeing the animals and since the LA County fair was really centered around agriculture, there were always a lot of them.
Fun fact: The LA County Fair was the first track in Southern California to offer betting on horse races. Santa Anita, where my grandfather trained race horses, opened a year later.
On Friday, Adrianne and I went to the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair in Gaithersburg. I’ve only been once before, but it definitely brings back some memories of my times at the fair as a kid. It’s not quite as big as LA County, but it has a ton of animals and a pretty good sized Fun Zone, though I still didn’t go on any rides. The food selection is not too bad, although I’m looking forward to going to the Maryland State Fair in a few weeks. They have a rodeo, which I’ve never been to before, and the food selections look terrific, especially the mac & cheese mini doughnuts.
One of the big reasons I was excited to go to the Montgomery County fair this year is that I’ve been dipping my toes back into photography and thought that the fair would provide a terrific backdrop to exercise my compositional muscles. While I wouldn’t say any of the photos I took were particularly good, the backdrop did not disappoint. The weather couldn’t have been better and the crowd was busy but manageable. I was using my Olympus EM1 MkII with a 12-40mm f/2.8 Pro lens, mostly towards the 40mm end. I love composing for negative space, so I got lots of silhouettes of the rides against the sky and a few decent detail shots. The thing is—I wasn’t really expecting to get anything good. It’s been a solid couple of years since I went out shooting with any purpose or intention, so all I really wanted to do was refamiliarize myself with looking at the world through a viewfinder and re-engage the muscle memory of how to use my camera without taking my face away to look at the buttons. From that perspective, it was wildly successful, and more than that, it was a lot of fun.
I think one of the reasons I stopped taking pictures is that I thought it had to be something or it had to lead somewhere. I lost track of the joy of just taking pictures for the sake of taking pictures—or as a means to get me into the darkroom, which was often the case when I was still shooting film. As much as I loved the perspective of looking through a viewfinder, I much preferred the picture editing process to the picture taking process. I would burn through 100-foot rolls of film just so I could get back into my darkroom and have something to develop and print. One of my heroes was Jerry Uelsmann, and I would do my best at dodging and burning on multiple negatives to create my own analog composites. They were crude, especially compared to his, but the physical process was analogous to painting and taught me about composition, visual weight and tension, and how to run with a concept or idea for no other reason than just to see where it goes. Years later, when I got my first copy of Photoshop (Version 3.0 on floppy disk!), my head nearly exploded at the new visual possibilities that opened up by embracing the digital darkroom. I wish I still had even some of those early experiments, but sadly all of that work has been lost to time.
If you’ve been following along for a while, you may recognize a trend that has emerged over the last several Iterations, which is that it’s okay to just play at being creative and let the muscles and reflexes return that may have gone a bit fallow from chasing the algorithm. I follow an artist named Bob Burridge and one of the things I love about him is the joy he gets from and brings to making art. He routinely calls his daily practice “playing in the sandbox” and just lets himself wander through composition, color, and texture without having to dictate or even worry about where a piece will go. He knows that immersing ourselves in the process of making and letting it go where it needs to will often yield better results than trying to force it. That’s certainly been true for me in my own creative practice. I want to get back to having fun with my own creativity more regularly than I’ve allowed myself in recent years.
I think the medium has become largely irrelevant to me in the sense that regardless of whether I choose photography, painting, 3D, graphic design, or anything else, the underlying impulse is to make. If I’m lucky, I get to make something I’ve never seen before and that becomes fuel to want to do it again. Where I tend to get derailed is in trying to figure out what to do with the things I make—and I think a lot of the time, it’s because I’m trying to figure it out while I’m making, which takes me out of the process or flow. In the same way that I’m either in write mode or edit mode, I think I need to be in making mode or marketing mode, but not both. I may even need to hand off marketing mode altogether and partner with someone who is better at that part of the making process. As creatives, we tend to want to do everything ourselves and while I think that because of my background I may be better suited to that than most, it still takes time away from doing the things I really love and frankly am much better at.
Thanks so much for reading.
What’s your favorite part of your creative process?
Do you give that part of your process the time it deserves?
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