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The Mysterious, Transient Architecture Of American Fairgrounds

Photographer Pamela Littky spent a summer traveling to fairs across the U.S., capturing an American vernacular that’s easy to miss.

In dirt parking lots off the sides of highways and in large fields stamped into dust by thousands of feet, the American fair sets down its wheels and opens its doors. There are mobile Ferris wheels and LED-covered booths where vendors convince visitors to try their hand at throwing games, surely stacked against them. The port-a-potties sit in a long line nearby.  And at dusk when the fair winds down and the people go home, the mobile rides and stands darken and empty, becoming an echo of their jovial daytime selves.

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This ephemeral built environment is the subject of a new photo series by the Los Angeles-based photographer Pamela Littky. Called American Fair, the series documents fairgrounds and their denizens across 15 states. For Littky, the series is a departure from her day job–she normally photographs L.A.’s celebrities, including Oprah, Steve Martin, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jennifer Lawrence. “In my commercial work, I mostly photograph well-known people, but in my personal work, I’m drawn to the more unglamorous side of American culture,” Littky tells Co.Design

Jackson, MS. [Photo: Pamela Littky]
The American fair seemed the perfect place to do so. “I’ve always been interested [in] small-town Americana and the fabric of those communities and the bonds of those relationships,” Littky says. “Choosing to shoot at a fairground seemed like a good backdrop in which to capture portraits and landscapes of quintessential Americana.”

The book, which will be published this March, focuses on both the places and people that Littky encountered during the summer of 2015 as she traveled across the country. She was fascinated to learn about the longevity of the fairs, the history situating her photos in a storied tradition. “Some of these traditions, mostly in the realm of coming together to sell agriculture, has survived for hundreds of years, even with the advent of technology,” Littky says. 

Cimarron, KS. [Photo: Pamela Littky]
She learned that the carnival rides and games–which are called the “midway” of the fair–are typically family-owned and run. They travel from fair to fair, which helps give the fair a similar feeling no matter where you are in the country. Littky noticed certain design details in fair architecture that seemed to be from different eras. For instance, some looked like they were straight out of the 1950s; while they were old and rickety, they had a classic retro look. These carnival features contrasted with those from decades later, which looked far more modern–particularly because they had LED lights on everything. This vernacular architecture is instantly recognizable: the red and white striped tents, the ornate, gaudy centerpieces of fair rides, the bold typography. These architectural pieces give the small-town American institution an enduring quality.

At her first fair in summer 2015 at a tiny town two and a half hours from Witchita, Kansas, called Coldwater, Littky learned very quickly that she wasn’t about to blend in with the crowds. The town only had 828 people, and everyone was initially very suspicious of her–though she says once she explained the project people were more welcoming.

Cimarron, KS. [Photo: Pamela Littky]
The series is a fascinating look at the warmth and strangeness of this remarkable American institution that’s been going strong for decades. Because Littky’s not just interested in the flashing lights–her photos also feature the behind the scenes architecture that props up those gaudy facades, and the trailers that bring them from town to town.

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But finding the right moment to capture these subtleties required significant patience. Littky would have to wait for just the right moment. “Every night, I’d wait for the light to get just low enough for the artificial light to pop,” she says. “The few minutes just past sunset when the sky is dark blue and the light from the fair spills over onto everything were always magic.”

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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