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Traveling ‘State Fair’ Exhibit Shows State of Humanity

Photojournalist Arthur Grace fell in love with the American state fair after attending one in Minnesota. He eventually spent a couple of years photographing about 10 state fairs and compiled those photos into a book, ‘State Fair.’ The Johnson City Library is hosting an exhibit Sept. 18-Oct. 24 of Grace’s state fair photos. Photo by Arthur Grace

JOHNSON CITY — Arthur Grace criss-crossed the U.S. and the world as a photojournalist covering sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, a drought in West Africa, the Middle East War in 1973, and school busing and desegregation in Boston from 1974-75.

But not all of his subjects were steeped in destruction and conflict.

While visiting friends in Minnesota in 1977, he decided to check out its state fair.

“I was fascinated by how it represented the heartland,” he recalled of that excursion 40 years ago.

Grace also saw an intriguing piece of Americana reflected in that fair. He contacted his agency and asked permission to photograph the event over a two-day period. The agency gave him the green light and then distributed the resulting photos across the country.

Afterward, Grace went about photographing more serious state of affairs: Eastern Europe, Russia, the Carter administration, and at least two presidential campaigns. One of those campaigns swung by the Ohio State Fair, and again, the event captivated Grace.

It wouldn’t be until the early 2000s when Grace gave state fairs that attention he thought they deserved. That led to a book and, eventually, a photo exhibit, which makes a stop Sept. 18-Oct. 24 at the Johnson City Library, 501 N. Nugent Ave.

The exhibit features many of the photos Grace took during a two-year state fairs quest, which are in his book, “State Fair.” Grace took “thousands” of photographs as he explored fairs across the country, narrowing down the images to about 116 for the book.

For a photographer who covered major events, state fairs might seem like a step back, but Grace doesn’t see it that way.

“It gets back to the reality of the human condition and what people are all about,” he said. “Sometimes, it’s the quiet stories that have the most impact (and) make those connections.”

State fairs, as Grace explained, represent many great facets of America.

“Even though they’re state fairs, one isn’t just like the other, but they have a core set of values running through them,” he said.

Grace found each of the fairs fascinating in its own right. All had their unique local flavor though they shared similarities such as carnivals and livestock show competitions.

“All sorts of competitions. There are certain things that represent America, one of which is competition. There are others like patriotism and that pride in America,” he said.

The photos in the book and exhibit are black and white. Though Grace will photograph subjects in color, black and white images offer a simplicity and nostalgia that works well with state fairs. Yet, there are other reasons, Grace pointed out.

“Color can be distracting,” he said. “Some of the photos, there might be a lot going on in them, and color would only compete with the subject. With black and white, it’s about the composition.”

The exhibit opens Monday, Sept. 18, at the library with a reception 6-7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 19. The reception includes a program by Johnson City Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Frances Ann Giron called “All Things State Fair” and live music by The Dome Pickers.

On Saturday, Oct. 21, the library will host a closing reception starting at 7 p.m. The event will feature a screening of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “State Fair” starring Pat Boone and Ann-Margret.

The exhibit runs through Oct. 24. Library hours are 9 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Friday and 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday. Call (830) 868-4469 for more information.

Go to to learn more about Grace and his work.

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