In rural America, summertime fairs are a highlight of the year because they feature playful games, spectacular prizes, fast rides, and a variety of agricultural competitions.
But more, they offer freedom. Freedom from the everyday. And the chance to be a better you, if only for a weekend.
This richly textured photography book features a 1500 word introduction and 50+ images taken at New England fairs held between 2006 and 2018.
Click here to purchase Freedom at the Fair.
The fair is a jewel in summer’s crown. It’s an annual ritual in rural America—an institution rooted in our agricultural past that has transcended its origins to become something greater. The fair is that rare special occasion where you can escape the everyday and feel free. Free to explore. Free to wonder. Free to laugh. Free to play. Free to be.
At every turn, the fair is sweet. But it can be salty, too. It’s a weekend you look forward to all year, peppered with surprises you would never dream up. It’s adrenaline, sore feet, and sunburn. And just when you catch your breath, it’s gone.
I love the fair. I always have.
Where I grew up in California, the county fair was one long weekend in early July. Everything changed in that short time. A vacant lot became a site for magic. The skyline transformed, sprouting colorful new geometries. FM radio ads teased us, announcing the bands that were scheduled to play. The sun felt hotter. Smiles grew bigger. Everybody shined.
As junior high students, we made elaborate plans to see the fair as a group. And our parents would let us, assuming there was safety in numbers. I remember how we darted through the exhibitions and breezed between the vendors. How we swam through swarms of strangers. Endless temptations flashed before us as we approached the midway: candies, prizes, rides. Pausing, we would dare each other to flirt with cliques from other schools. Go talk to them, they’re so beautiful. Then we’d blend back into the crowd, laughing. In the playful randomness we could be bolder, different, more. But we also had to be vigilant. The high school kids could fuck you up. They were clever, cruel, and sticky with b.o. They had heavy metal t-shirts, roach clips, and unpredictable ways. If you got caught, your ass was grass.
And, of course, there were the carneys. Barkers calling from every direction. Your ears perked as your feet slowed. Eye contact with a carney was like a tractor beam. “Come here,” they’d say as they waved you in. “Try your luck. It’s only one dollar.”
The games at the fair are like riddles in old storybooks. Double talk, simple rules, and the promise of a bounty beyond imagination. You were too old for stuffed animals, but damn it’s twice your height. Worse, the games taunted you. It’s just an ordinary dart, a baseball, a plastic ring, a water gun, a machine gun, a balloon. Were the rules stacked against you? Obviously. Everything is rigged. But you could totally do it.
“Let me demonstrate.” By then it was too late. The carney had you on the hook. “What’s your name, kid?”
“Larry,” you lied, heart pounding. You’d wear a straight face to try and impress your friends. But still you walked closer.
The carneys came from a different world and lived by a different code. They didn’t care if you sassed them. They’d clap back, their cigarette-roughened voices calling from the tinny speakers behind the prizes. They recognized your teenage attitude and upped the stakes, conjuring a crowd behind you with a well timed barb. Oof. Now everyone else was watching you, too. The carneys gave you control, but you were always a mark. It was never a fair match.
I remember the midway rides as beautiful mayhem…