‘Picture’ the Ag Fair in new museum exhibit

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Amid all the merry-making of August, the Martha’s Vineyard Agricultural Fair offers something joyous for absolutely everybody with its whirlwind of colors, smells, activity, and sounds.

Last summer, probably unbeknownst to fair goers, a troupe of talented Island photographers were out and about among them interpreting the fair with their own artistic eye, and you can see a mosaic of selected works in “Picturing the Fair” at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

As with the fair, there is much to delight the eye in this photo exhibit. There are some splendidly endearing photographs of animals. Max Skjöldebrand’s goat throws us a coy look with its soft brown eyes. Lisa Brown says about her chaotic piglets “making hay” in her “Family Portrait” that “It was a sweet scene to see all the piglets nuzzled together; just waking up. Photographing family portraits for 30 years, this image reminded me of those many little ones over the years just waking up as their family gets ready for the photo.” Maria Thibodeau’s tiny piglets suckling in a row is all the more amusing because of her title, “Snack Time,” which for her represents the “rich agricultural origins of the fair and the ever-favorite Fisher farm piglets.”

Youngsters also abound at the fair thus planting the seeds of childhood memories to last a lifetime. Adrianne Ryan skillfully frames her three double portraits in which, unexpectedly, a ginormous head of garlic features prominently. Ryan says, “The day before the fair officially opens, young and old alike bring their prize vegetables to the Agricultural Hall, hoping to win a ribbon, perhaps even to be judged best in show. In my mind everyone who enters the show is a winner.”

You almost want to hold your breath when you see Brooke Bartletta’s black-and-white photograph of an inexplicably huge bubble sitting on top of a young girl’s head. She stands, arms akimbo, looking at us with a perplexed expression. Bartletta says, “My approach to shooting the fair was similar to street photographers. I was constantly moving and looking for things that were authentic, sometimes quirky and/or nostalgic. I like to think of them as honest moments and aimed to illustrate the charm and character of the fair. This particular image was my favorite as it could have been taken in the ’50s or 2000s and it happened in a split second.”

Vincent Chahley captures the momentary serious countenances of children in his three handsome narrow, vertical portraits at the midway. The young girl in “I Got This” is clearly strategizing how to employ her ping-pong balls before taking aim while a boy triumphantly holds his stuffed birds overhead in his own “Rocky” pose. “I was so impressed with the quality of the ‘carnies’ and how they interacted with the children,” Chahley says. “I think I also assumed it was more of a hustle, which it may be in a bigger midway. But at our Ag Fair I was so impressed at the subtle skill of many of the workers who filled the children with confidence, a sense of victory, and the joy of being at the fair.”

“Picturing the Fair” is, in fact, Chahley’s brainchild. Last summer, looking for volunteer opportunities, he ended up talking to fair manager Amy Coffey, offering his help as a photographer. “She said something like funny you should ask as she had noticed that while the fair had lots of historical photos in its archives, they had very few photos of ‘modern times.’ We forget that modern times will be historical times in the future,” Chahley says. 

Chahley turned it into a group project in which each photographer had a timeslot of morning, afternoon, or evening to cover the different days of the fair. He explains, “The intent though wasn’t to be photo journalistic, but more to allow the photographers to choose what interested them the most.”

Tractors caught the eye of a lot of the artists. There is the gleeful countenance of the young boy behind the wheel on one, plowing forward into our own space in Gwen Norton’s photo. She shares, “I usually shoot landscapes, so this was an opportunity for me to slow down and try to see differently. There is so much going on at once at the fair and I loved the challenge of finding special moments.”

Clair Ganz was captivated with an adult’s relationship to the machine, saying “In my photo, the woman’s beautiful plait of braided hair, physical strength, and focused attention tending her older Super 88, delighted my vision and imagination. She inspires me to enjoy the effort — looking, thinking, and doing and most of all to never give up.”

We would be hard pressed to even recognize the machine in Alison Shaw’s “Tractor Studies” in which she zeros in so closely that the works become mesmerizingly luscious, abstract compositions. “The older, well-used tractors were more interesting to me than shiny, new tractors would’ve been,” Shaw says. “I loved the bright colors, graphic shapes, and the patina from years of use.” And while Bob Avakian’s long horizontal photo presents a slice of stuffed animal prizes, his play of color along our field of vision likewise borders on the abstract.

Photographer Dena Porter abandons the bright sun of daytime, instead creating an unusual night scene that also straddles abstraction and realism. She brings us practically eye level with the kaleidoscopic play of light on the wet, puddled ground bouncing off the surrounding lit-up rides in “Rainy Night at the Fair.” She says, “While many left because of the heavy rain, die-hard fair attendees enjoyed the rides and muddy paths on this steamy night.”

Although artists had to choose just a few photographs from their entire portfolios, the exhibit most assuredly whets our appetite for the actual fair — and perhaps after seeing their unique points of view, you’ll experience the festivities with a keener eye.

Picturing the Fair” runs through Sept. 24 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.