the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Carnivals



Carousels are wonderful, but can fall, pictorially, into the “done to death” category


CENTURIES AGO, WHEN THE ROMAN WRITER PUBLILIUS COINED THE PHRASE “Familiarity breeds contempt” he was speaking about how human relations go sour based on an overdose of closeness or a lack of variety. But he also unwittingly described the challenge of photographing an exhaustively recognizable subject. The more a thing has been shot, the more we feel challenged to say something fresh about it, and the more we grow disgusted with how utterly, ugh, familiar it is.

I have been shooting carousels my entire life, with a wiiiiiiide variance in result. Most of my attempts just fall into the technically-challenged category: blurs, underexposures, tilted horizons, lousy compositions, etc. Others are okay, specs-wise, but ho-hum in effect. I keep trying to make pictures that export the grand visual ballet of romance that I carry in my brain, a rich, gauzy collective memory dipped in gaudy colour and memory. The problem, of course, is that what comes out of the camera is…just another picture of a carousel.


The housings and surrounds for classic carousels add context and a little more mystery. 

Recently I realized that the carousel itself is part of the problem, since it contains too much information that, through millions of attempts, we all have taken for granted. Nothing new can be suggested by just continuing to click away at the thing, while, if one backs off a bit, nearly backing the thing out of the frame entirely to show more of its surrounding context, something fresher may actually emerge.

As seen above, the carousel inside the 1916 Looff Hippodrome building on the Santa Monica pier in California, the very rig that Paul Newman’s character in The Sting used to entertain his bevy of, ahem, tarts, is beautiful not only in its own right, but for the immense octagonal wooden barn that houses it…so much so that shooting an image that primarily highlights the structure with just a hint of racing horses (seen directly above) at least lets a little fresh air into the process. The barn’s high arched windows look directly out to the Pacific and bathe the interior with warm, comforting light, which also softens the deeper hues of the ride itself. I shot about a dozen conventional lights-and-horses frames, but once I got home I found I liked this better. Sometimes when something has been talked to death in pictures, it’s at least a relief to change the conversation a bit, if only by pivoting ninety degrees.



1/1250 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 55mm.


PHOTOGRAPHY SHOULD ALWAYS OPERATE, at least to some extent, as a cultural mile marker, a chronicle of what time has taken away, a scrapbook of vanishings and extinctions. We make records. We bear witness. We take pictures of the comings and the goings.

One of the things that has been going, since the coming of the permanent, Disneyeque theme parks, those sanitized domains of well-regulated recreation, is the great American carnival, in all its gaudy and ever so slightly dodgy glory. Loud, crude and exotically disreputable, these neon and canvas gypsy camps of guilty pleasure once sprang up in fields and vacant lots across the nation, laden with the delicious allure of original sin, that is, if the first apple of Eden had been dipped in shiny red candy. We came, we saw, whe rode, we ate, we clicked off millions of snapshots on our Kodak Brownies.

1/125 sec., f/5, ISO 100, 165mm.

The thing that made it all so magical was geography. Unlike Seven Flags or Cedar Point, the carnival came to us. Like the circus, the carnival was coming to your town, just down your block. That meant that your drab streets were transformed into wonderlands in the few hours it took for the roustabouts to assemble their gigantic erector sets into rickety Ferris wheels and Tilt-a-Whirls. And then there was the faint whiff of danger, with rides that made dads ask “is this thing safe?” and crews that made moms repeat horrific tales of what happens to Little Children Who Talk To Strangers.

It was heaven.

1/250 sec., f/5.6, ISO 100, 35mm.

The images seen here are a partial return to that sketchy paradise, with the arrival in my neighborhood, this week of a carnival in an area that hasn’t hosted one in well over a decade. It’s almost as if Professor Marvel just ballooned in from Oz, or Doc and Marty had suddenly materialized in the DeLorean. It’s that weird. Four days in, and I’m there with a different lens each time, sopping up as much trashy delight as I can before the entire mirage folds and all our lives return to, God help us, normal. Photographs are never a substitute for reality, any more than a hoof print is a horse. But when dreams re-appear, however fleetingly, well past their historical sell-by date, well, I’ll settle for a few swiftly stolen souvenirs.





PUBLIC PLACES, ESPECIALLY RECREATION SPACES, ARE A REAL STUDY IN IMAGE CONTROL. The world’s playgrounds and theme parks are, of course, in the business of razzle-dazzle, and their marquees, grand courts and official entrances are carefully crafted facades designed to delight. For photographers, that usually means we all take the same pictures of the same Magic Gate or Super Coaster or whatever. Great for convenience: not so great for photography.

I’m not saying that it’s impossible to improvise a different way to frame something new in shooting something overly familiar. But I am saying that sneaking around to the service entrance can have its points, too, offering a flavor of things that are a little funkier, a little less polished, a little less ready for prime time. I recall my dad, who, years ago, dreamed of taking the ultimate “real” shots of the circus, trolling around near some of the lesser-traveled entrances and halls, trying to catch the clowns and acrobats either just before or just after their time in the ring. I still pursue that strategy sometimes.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

All the fun of the fair, just seen from backstage.

Pacific Park, the amusement center along the boardwalk at the Santa Monica pier, is a predictably colorful, semi-cheesy mix of carny sights and smells. The main foot traffic is straight down the pier to the fishing lookout, but there are alternate ways to get there along the back of the ride and games section. This shot is rather gauzy, as it’s taken through some sun-flecked netting, softening the color (and the appearance of reality) for some gaming areas. I took a lot of standard stuff on this day, but I keep coming back to this frame. It’s not a work of art, by any means, but I like the feeling that I’m not supposed to be there.

Of course, where I’m not supposed to be is, photographically, exactly where I want to be.

You never know when you might spy a clown without his rubber nose.