Photographer Harold Lee Miller captures the midways, concession stands, and show barns of Indiana in his new book.
"Fairs keep the agricultural identity of America alive. They are a showcase of that life,” says photographer Harold Lee Miller. “It’s basically a big show every year — a big party where kids and parents get involved.”
But not everyone is fortunate enough to make it to one of these celebrations of rural life and the Americana dream. Which is why Miller’s new photography book, Fair Culture, aims to bring the midway to the masses.
“Unless you live in a small town, you don’t think much about where your food comes from,” says Miller. “You don’t see the people who produce it. You’re not exposed to agriculture up close. The fair reasserts that in a way that helps it stay visible. It allows us to realize, Oh yeah, there are people who raise these cows, and this is what the animals smell like and what they look like up close.”
Miller’s documentarian, sometimes clinical, take on Indiana fairs is that of an outsider. But he’s not just an outsider to 4-H clubs and farmsteads; he’s felt that way his whole life.
“I was born in the South, in Arkansas, but we never lived there. My dad was an army guy and we lived on bases all across the country and in Japan and Germany. So I had a nostalgic, romanticized perspective of small-town life.” A way of life that Miller didn’t think was going to be around much longer. “I had this sense that the subculture, everything surrounding the fair, was going to go away. I thought it was this passing thing.” So he set out to document it.
For three years, Miller visited fairs throughout his now-home state of Indiana, working with pageant contestants, harness racers, pie-bake contestants, demolition derby drivers, strongest-man competitors, and career carnies to create a work that captures the extraordinary microcosms that orbit midways throughout the Midwest. As it turns out, it’s a world that hasn’t changed much in two centuries.
In an essay included in the book, Gerald Waite writes, “Even though many have existed through at least five wars, a major depression, and several minor recessions, these fairs, at least in outward appearance, seem a mainstay of local values, with premium lists changing little since their inception.”
Sure, neon lights, Tilt-A-Whirls, and cotton candy weren’t around at the earliest state fairs, but most fair-goers can’t remember a time when such modern innovations weren’t fairground essentials.
These constants allow for an overlapping sense of nostalgia between generations. When a man takes his son to the fair, he is struck with a similar feeling of fond remembrance that his own father felt decades before. Years from now, that young boy will experience the exact same exhilaration when he takes his child to that same living time capsule.
When Miller completed the project, he had a newfound faith in the timelessness of fairs. “I was wrong about all of this going away. It’s a much more healthy culture than I realized. Every time we go, it brings it back to us and it makes us realize that this way of life is still strong, and that it’s still a very important part of our culture.”