By Theresa Bembnister, Associate Curator
This season marks Stephen Tomasko’s seventh summer photographing county fairs throughout Ohio. Three of the artist’s untitled photographs of foodstands appear in Snack, which runs through September 3 in the Judith Bear Isroff Gallery. The Akron Art Museum blog chats with Tomasko about his current work as well as projects the artist pursues far from the fairgrounds.
Akron Art Museum: Fair season seems to really pick up in August. Which fairs do you plan to visit this month?
Stephen Tomasko: August is amazing for fairs. I’ll definitely hit the Ohio State Fair. The county fairs are all over the place this month. On my schedule is Columbiana, Medina, Holmes, Cuyahoga, Lake, Lorain, Portage and the amazing Canfield fair at the very end of the month. There are some other good ones as well which I may fit in if time allows.
Do you see the same vendors at different fairs?
I do see many of the same vendors and carnival game operators at different fairs over the course of the season. Many of them are quite supportive and have a real interest in what I’m doing as they see their way of life as a disappearing piece of history and want to see it documented and remembered. The people with the games, in particular, are full of stories from their travels and the past: How far a particular game has traveled over the years, how old their metal milk bottles are, various bits of carny history, scams they have seen over the years, stuff like that. Also once you get to know some people over time you hear more about their own past and what their families are up to and how they got on the road. It seems that, like making art, once you get the traveling fair bug some people get pulled in and never get out. It can be an obsession as well as a lifestyle choice.
You tend to photograph in crowded, chaotic situations—county fairs, tailgate parties, outside of the Republican National Convention. What attracts you to those environments?
I am really interested in the crowded and chaotic lately, especially those groups that are formed around a shared interest or passion as opposed to, say, everyone on the sidewalk heading from work at the same time because it’s rush hour. I’m fascinated by what it is that makes people identify with a group enough to show up and join and dress a certain way and act a certain way. What drives people to spend all the time and effort to buy or make the stuff to fit in and stand out?
Also, with a certain density of engaged people you get a critical mass where everything gets noticeably intensified. People feed off of one another and really commit to what they are doing, emotions run higher, it’s much louder, even the smells are stronger. These are elements that I want to convey in my work.
It’s not that different from my spring flowering tree work really. I pack those images from edge to edge with blooms and supplement the natural light with very theatrical flash to create an over-the-top, more-real-than-real tableaux and when it works people respond all the time with comments like “It smells like flowers in here!” So what I’m obsessed with doing now is entering into these energized packed places, distilling down the action there into the frame, capturing what it feels like to be there, maybe even reminding you of what it smells like to be in a place like that, not just what it looks like to be there even though that is of primary importance, too.
I think another part of it is that I like to do things that are hard, to make things that have not been done well before. Crowds are hard and these places are a mess. As a small example, the fairs are loaded with big ugly trash cans that will kill an image in a second if you aren’t careful about excluding them. You never notice that they are not there in the prints, but the work would suffer if they were in the image. Making visually coherent and beautiful photographs is a real challenge. My wife always says about these chaotic images “I love to look at the prints, but I wouldn’t want to be there!” They are a fun challenge to make.
How do your subjects typically respond when they notice they are being photographed?
Photographing in a crowd can be easier to move around and work without people noticing you ahead of the exposure. By the time most people notice they are being photographed, if they notice at all, I have usually made my best shot. The reaction of those who do notice varies a great deal from venue to venue, and sometimes I can’t really figure it out ahead of time. In general, out of all the situations I photograph, the county fairs are toughest. The participants there, even though it is a very public venue and they are “showing at the fair,” tend to be very suspicious of outsiders. I’m not sure if they think I’m from PETA or something, but the reaction is sometimes pretty unpleasant. On the other hand, tailgating at the Muni Lot before Browns games is a blast. Sure I’ve got to clean beer off my camera almost every game, but the reaction of my subjects to being singled out and noticed is almost always very positive. I’m constantly offered food and drink.
In the spirit of Snack, I have to ask this last question. What’s your favorite fair food?
I’ve been to so many fairs now that the stuff that is straight up bad for you holds no more interest to me. The deep fried and the sugar doused has long since lost any allure for me. I’m usually looking for something that is good and will sustain me through the summer heat. A best bet for me is to get a ribeye sandwich from the local cattlemen organization at any given fair. That almost always satisfies and usually they will have some fresh sweet corn roasted on that same grill.