‘The Iowa State Fair’: Photographer celebrates Iowa’s state fair

Books, Life, Reviews,
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July 27, 2014 | 12:01 am

The 2014 Iowa State Fair is just a few weeks away, and Kurt Ullrich’s collection of photos from last year’s fair might help you get in the mood for this year’s big event. “The Iowa State Fair” (University of Iowa Press, 132 pages, $25) features Ullrich’s black and white images of the people, livestock and attractions that come together in Des Moines.

While Ullrich is clearly a skilled photographer, I found the short essays that open each section of the book to be the best part of “The Iowa State Fair.” Ullrich has a knack for capturing the emotions the fair might elicit, from nostalgia to pride to hopefulness. Here he writes of the connection between younger and older fairgoers as a spelling bee unfolds:

“Halfway up in the seats, an older couple sits transfixed, half smiling, mouthing each letter along with the contestants, as if by sheer willpower they can help the young spellers succeed. For a few moments, it feels as if this might actually be heaven on earth, sitting in an air-conditioned barn arena on a hot Iowa day, thinking about words, sure that Iowa’s future is in good hands as each child steps to the microphone.”

Sure, there’s a syrupy sweetness to the text, but in this context, even the more cliched notions seem to resonate.

As for the photographs, they vary in quality of composition and impact. A photo captioned “Plaid dancers take a turn” is arranged so that the eye is drawn primarily to the bright overhead lights, surely not Ullrich’s intention. On the other hand, “Big Boar Contest” finds us face-to-face with an enormous animal while men poke, prod, look on. It captures a moment perfectly.

The black and white images often successfully encapsulate details that might be obscured in color photographs, but the lack of color often seems odd in “The Iowa State Fair.” Ullrich’s language tends toward the colorful, after all. But more than that, the brightness (and potential gaudiness) of the temporary landscape of the fair seems an integral part of the experience.

Still, Ullrich celebration of the fair and the ways in which it connects past, present and future is charming.

Book signings

•What: Kurt Ullrich signs “The Iowa State Fair”

•IOWA CITY: 1 to 3 p.m. Saturday, Prairie Lights Books, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City

•CEDAR RAPIDS: 1 to 3 p.m.

Aug. 9, Barnes & Noble Bookseller, 333 Collins Rd. NE

•Cost: Free

•Exhibit: Ullrich’s photos also are on display through Aug. 10 at the Old Capitol Museum on the University of Iowa campus in Iowa City

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