Dan Nelken’s Till the Cows Come Home, is a culmination of nine years photographing county fairs in the rural NorthEast region of the United States. His project evolved into creating moving portraits of the farming participants, especially the youth and the animals that they raised.
Not shown are the multitude of games, rides, amusements, food booths and the people who are visiting the fair. Which are the things that I can call most from when I visited our local MidWest county fair with my parents. We were the outsiders, visitors from the suburbs, while Nelken has provided us with a behind the scenes look at the insiders, those who raised the animals behind the gates, pens and stalls.
He provides a warm glimpse of the rural human element that drives one of the basic needs for the county fair. A place for the coming of age of those who are destined to take their place on the farms. For those on a farm, the county fair is a rite of passage, that marks the end of childhood and prepares one for adulthood. But just like puberty, this is also an awkward time for these young people, one foot still lingering in their childhood, while the other stepping forward to adult size responsibilities.
We see these youth in the context of the animals they raise and have brought to be judged, and they bring a large menagerie. There are goats, sheep, rams, piglets, hogs, horses, calves, cows, ducks, chickens, rosters, hens and chicks, ducks, rabbits, and even fish. There are some wildlife, but usually brought to the fair “stuffed”, to show a competency in the art of taxidermy.
One background element in many of the photographs are the awards, an essential component to the participation at the fair. The ribbons and trophies are festooned with gold embossed letters, big flowery bows, either in bold colors of red, blue and purple. These awards declare the holder to be Excellent or the most highly desired, Best in Show. The young recipients are proud, smiling and joyful in their recent achievements. The parents and adults appear more focused, almost intense, as if knowing that some of these ribbons could translate to higher prices for the livestock. It is not easy for them to ignore the hard reality of farm economics, animals are bred to be consumed or a source of a steady cash flow
Nelken has caught these young people lost in thought, and although difficult to know about what, it is probably not much different than their young counterparts in the suburbs or the city. And he found them sleeping, perhaps exhausted from the necessary work, as the livestock still need to be fed and cared for. The young owners are also involved in the extra effort to groom their animals for the judges; washing, shaving, combing and other preparations for the judging. Then a needed pause to catch 40 winks. Any napping place will do, in a chair, a temporary hammock strung up in the stable, on a bale of hay or perhaps just use their animal as a temporary bed, like as if it might be a big, warm, bean-bag.
The youth are seen enjoying the company of their animals they have raised, they are comfortable being around them and show a sense of closeness. They are in that in between stage, evident in the affectionate gestures of touching, foundling, holding, creasing their animals. Some use their larger animals as pillows to sleep against or as a stool to sit on. We can guess that they may have become emotionally attached to these animals who have recently consumed so much of their attention, even thought these young adults know the eventual fate.
I enjoy Nelken’s light hearted composition of a young man posing with his cow. The cow’s hind quarters falling out of the frame to the left, but magically, as if by slight of hand, reappears again on the right edge of the backdrop. The young man stands before a crude backdrop that is representational of a farming field, while to his right, the hind quarters of the cow is standing in a real landscape setting. An interesting juxtaposition of the real and surreal.
The country fair queen in her long flowing gown, crowned with the silver teaera and a string of pearls. She is not standing on a stage, but by a barn, with the hem of her gown bunched up and lying on the grass. She is not holding a beautiful flora arrangement fitting a new crowned queen, but cuddling the head of a freshly shorn sheep. Meanwhile a man gamely tries to place the sheep’s legs into place, probably for what he feels should be the formal group photograph. She appears to be well aware of this humorous situation. A queen in her rural court.
The exuberance of a young woman, holding on to her award winning rooster, with the two hands thrusting in from the edges offering her awards. From Nelken’s caption, apparently these awards that have been a long time coming. She is laughing and enjoying this obviously set-up, both about her good fortune as well as sophisticated enough to realize how amusing this might appear.
Almost mid-way through the book, Nelken provides an interlude, much like an intermission at a play. Momentarily stepping away from the human play, to view the displays for judging the cakes, vegetables, and flowers. The displays are very basic, with no fan-fare, no frills. The vegetables for judging lay on white, paper plates, and those are sitting on plastic floor tiles stapled to the wooden table tops, symbolic of the utilitarian farm life.
I enjoy the direct eye contact that the Nelken has captured. His subjects appear at easy, open, momentarily with their guard let down, perhaps reveling a little more about themselves. I sense that these young people are enjoying the events that are swirling about them. I see the effects of daily grind of the farm evident in the eyes and faces of many of the adults, meanwhile the young participants still have that sparkle of youth, hope, innocence and enthusiasm for what might lay ahead. This is also an indirect portrait of Nelken, reflecting the trust that he establishes.
The photographs are nicely printed, single photograph to a page with small white margins framing the images. The color photographs are printed clean and crisp, appear well defined, much like most of Nelken’s subjects. The book’s introduction is nicely written by Roy Flukinger, who provides the apt quote from Roy Stryker during his days in the 1930’s with the FSA;
“Documentary is an approach, not a technic [sic]; an afformation, not a negation…the question is not what to picture or what camera to use. Every phase of our time and our surroundings has vital significance and any camera in good repair is an adequate instrument. The job is to know enough about the subject matter to find its significance in itself, and in relation to its surroundings, its time and its function.”
While many contemporary books are being printed quite large, although making the photographs a pleasure to enjoy, the books become very unwieldy to hold. This book is refreshingly sized at 9” x 9”, with a sound binding that allows it to lay open comfortably in my hands. A design and style I find in sync with the utilitarianism of the rural life that Nelken has documented here.
by Douglas Stockdale