How I Shot This: Fair Play
Photographer Dan Nelken explains how he takes blue-ribbon portraits at county fairs.
Israeli-born, New York-based photographer Dan Nelken, 60, shoots for design firms, ad agencies, and for his pet-portrait studio, Fetching Dog Photos. But, he says, he always has a personal project going to “maintain my sanity.” This image is from his project Till the Cows Come Home: County Fair Portraits.
Q. What are we looking at here?
A. The boy’s name is Jonathan. He’s participating in the showmanship competition, which is less about your animal and more about you — the way you present the animal, the way you move, keeping your eye on the judge. There’s a whole choreography involved. This was the moment where, after the competition, the judge spends about a minute talking with a representative of the awards committee to decide who’s the winner. I love that even though there’s so much anticipation there, you get a sense of the inner peace that Jonathan has. As one person said to me, he looks like a young John the Baptist — the light, the way he’s holding the ram…
Q. How did you get interested in fairs?
A. I started photographing them almost 10 years ago, but it was really my neighbor who encouraged me. Almost as a courtesy to him I went down there on the last day. I couldn’t wait for the next year so I could go back! For the first couple of years I didn’t photograph any people whatsoever.
On the third year, a friend of mine — a photographer — was visiting. She talks to everybody. Suddenly she says, “I want you to meet Norie and I want you to take her photograph.”
I ended up taking a number of photographs of Norie with her favorite hen. When I saw the contact sheets, I couldn’t believe how blind I had been! So I ended up going to other county fairs. By the fourth year I knew I was developing a body of work that would become a book.
Q. Did you run into any problems while shooting?
A. Cuteness. When you’ve got good-looking kids and animals, you can get cute, and I wanted to avoid that. The first thing kids do when you aim a camera at them is smile. But by making it cute, I’d be missing out on what was really happening, and denigrating it. This is a real competition, and these kids have devoted their lives to it.
Q. What camera do you use?
A. The Hasselblad 500CM with an 80mm lens and Kodak Portra 400VC film. I’m guessing the exposure was 1/60 at f/2.8.
Q. the light is all natural?
A. This is where God’s light comes in. Even though it’s difficult, I didn’t use strobe in this project because I’d rather wait for those wonderful surprises that happen when you don’t try to control everything.