Fair Fotos

by Mar 1, 2013Voices Columns

Through the lens of Clifford Oliver’s camera, the ubiquitous sights of the county fair are transformed into timeless nods to rural living.

He captures the focused determination of a boy atop a massive Percheron horse, the thrill and fear on the faces of rollercoaster riders, and the wet and dimpled nose of an ox. Moreover, Oliver’ s photographs of New York’ s county fairs glorify its people—those who visit by the thousands and the exhibitors who make the seasonal spectacle what it is. Yet no matter where he turns his lens, Oliver sets up his scenes to define the annual summer ritual as iconic, wholesome, and pleasurable…

The folks at the fair liked his photos so much that, a few years ago, they hired Oliver as its official photographer. “It’ s so much fun and so beautiful,” said Oliver of the Greenwich event that takes place every August. “It celebrates how we live, and there is something for the entire family.”….

Boy sits atop a large white plowhorse.

Plowboy atop a Percheron horse.

Excited riders on a rollercoaster.

Rollercoaster riders at the Washington County Fair.

“The animals, the people, the food, the carnival atmosphere—I loved it all,” he said. “Everything I love about the country was compressed in one place for a week. It was wonderful.”

Moreover, he realized that the county fair was, and still is, responsible for upholding fading agrarian traditions.

“I think the county fair helps to preserve rare and endangered feats,” said Oliver, who is well known regionally as a portrait and landscape photographer. “You see a sheep being clipped, and its wool being spun, and a team of six horses being driven. It’ s not often you see that. It’ s beautiful.”….

Team of dark horses.

Team of six working horses, pulling wagon.

“It was the best of all fairs,” said Oliver. “It had the largest collection of animals, a big horse show with pleasure horses, gymkhana, barrel races, rodeo, and the working horses. I love draft horses. They are so strong, intelligent, and versatile.” That adoration is plainly in view in his photographs….

An old woman sits with a spinning wheel.

Ruth Potter at spinning wheel at the Saratoga Fair.

While Oliver is attracted to the herds of farm animals, he also is lured by the old-time country arts. That’ s obvious in a portrait of a woman at her spinning wheel. Dressed with care in skirt, blouse, and jewelry, and her hair pulled back neatly in a bun, the woman sits in a sheep barn, spinning wool. Surrounded by other spinners, this older, stately looking woman glances up at the camera as her wheel spins rapidly in a blur.

“I feel like the photos provide a historical record,” said Oliver. “I’m afraid these things will go away.”

Three older women smile out of a window.

Three “ticket ladies” greeting fairgoers at the gate at the Washington County Fair.

His pictures also demonstrate Oliver’ s reverence for fair fellowship…. The delight of the visitors is palpable, too. It is clear on the faces of a man in a straw hat and a little girl in cowboy boots who, pressed against a corral fence, perhaps daydreams of the year she rides a horse like the one cantering by.

A little girl watches a horseback rider at a fair.

A wishful little girl watches a rider at the Washington County Fair.

After the fair shuts down for another year, Oliver hands over his photographic record to fair officials who will use it for advertisements, programs, and other promotional material for the following year….

For this, Oliver only receives a small stipend. But he doesn’ t seem to mind.

“When I’ m at the fair, I feel like I’ m in heaven,” said the photographer who spends every hour of the week within its borders. “I have access, and I photograph to my heart’ s content, and at the same time, expose the joys of the farm. I think it will always have a universal appeal.”