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Step right up! Are you invigorated by the swirling, jostling cacophony of a happy crowd? Do you hanker for dynamic photographs and lively stories? Then step right up, don’t you miss it! In “State Fair: The Last Living Munchkin From the Wizard of Oz and Other Stories” (Kehrer Verlag, 2014), Christopher Chadbourne’s energetic color photographs narrate the visual stories from 15 State Fairs in 12 states over a period of 3 years.
It is clear from the outset that Chadbourne is a celebrant of life, that he embraces the full complexity of what he refers to as ”accidental communities”, in which crowds of strangers occupy the same space for a limited time. To him, the State Fair represents “perhaps America’s most democratic institution”, a treasured annual ritual with historical roots in the harvest festivals of an agrarian economy, to which millions of people have flocked in every part of our country for generations.
But Chadbourne’s is neither an historic nor a romanticized view of this storied and venerable tradition. Rather, he uses the State Fair as a platform from which to view the cross-section of American culture and diversity today. Seeking the “idiosyncrasies of human behavior”, Chadbourne endeavored to “organize and frame visual chaos in provocative and revealing ways”, using his camera as a window to “imagined stories” and novel perspectives.
Such an ambitious effort might easily have failed in the wrong hands. Instead, it succeeds in myriad ways, starting with it’s tone. Without a hint of either cynicism or adoration, Chadbourne steps squarely into the center of the unruly microcosm that is a State Fair, becoming a cheerful participant and inviting the viewer’s complicity. We follow Chadbourne not only into the fray of excess and overload but also into observed moments of reverie, with equal parts intrigue and contemplation.
Further distinguishing Chadbourne’s photographs is his visual vocabulary. Using the deceptively simple tools of a wide-angle lens and vibrant palette, he deftly parses the complexity of crowded scenes into organized patterns of color, form and expression. He integrates movement and utilizes angles in a way that vividly recalls the wild joy of a ride or the constant press of the crowd.
With his incisive use of reflections and shadows, Chadbourne creates layered compositions, often integrating subtleties that we might never notice on our own. His camera positioning and keen attention to the interstices and details of a scene encourage and reward our closer inspection. And Chadbourne nails the State Fair’s pervasive overabundance with supersaturated colors that make it look like an amusement park on steroids.
But to me, Chadbourne’s consummate skill is juxtaposition. By sagely uniting contrasting elements, Chadbourne constructs both optical illusions and metaphorical allusions, at times lending a surrealistic mien to his work. His compositions frame people at oblivious cross-purposes and incorporate a range of emotions, from jubilant to exhausted, within a single photograph. In this way more than any other, Chadbourne conveys the uncommon in the commonplace. All the while, his photographs are subliminally suggesting untold stories, conjuring memories and provoking our imaginations.
Chadbourne’s combination of method and message packs a real punch. His work is especially timely now, with the very existence of state fairs at a crossroads, one after another being discontinued. “State Fair” is further enlivened by the intelligent essays of Paula Tognarelli, Executive Director and Curator of the Griffin Museum of Photography just outside Boston – and incidentally, where Chadbourne had his first exhibition – and by arts writer and editor, Bill Kouwenhoven. Christopher Chadbourne contributes his own insightful reflections, as well. Step right up folks, don’t be shy!
Feature image: “The Last Living Munchkin from The Wizard of Oz, Minnesota” by Christopher Chadbourne (courtesy of the artist)
“State Fair: The Last Living Munchkin From the Wizard of Oz and Other Stories” (Kehrer Verlag, 2014) by Christopher Chadbourne is available here: http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=State+Fair+by+Christopher+Chadbourne