Darkness does not descend but rises from the earth. Standing near the church stand wreathed within its mouthwatering bouquet of burgers and pies I watched it swallow the grass and lap up the sides of the carnival rides like coalblack floodwaters while all around ebbed and flowed families and children and roving packs of teenagers hustling here and bustling there, all seemingly unconscious or uncaring of the encroaching twilight. My lonely perch was off to the side, camera locked down on a tripod, lens focused on the central hub of the ferris wheel, anticipating full darkness when I would transform their corporeal shapes to shadows, to pale intangible ghosts.
I am a patient man. I wait with the placidity of Job, and suffer, too, with Jobian perseverance while mosquitoes whined and bit and raised welts on my arms and legs. A few people approached to ask what I was doing and why before drifting away toward the merry-go-round or the ferris wheel or the tentacled octopus, or the Brooks and Walsh concert still audible under the maples by the fair office, oblivious to the waxing moon haloed in storm clouds like some emergent and luminous spirit.
For four days and four nights I’d tried my best to capture the sights, sounds and senses of a country fair, and now, in its final hour, I was there for its denouement, its closing minutes, all the while knowing with utter certainty that I’d failed. It was too big of a subject, too immense, and in too many ways alien for a former urbanite to fully grasp. Nor did it help that I played it safe, hanging back when I should have charged forward, purposely distancing myself from its nucleus of animal husbandry and rural culture while skirting the peripheries for the easy subjects—the parade, the tractor pull, the live concert and, now, the carnival.
What was it that held me back? I wondered but answers danced away leaving only the coppery taste of remorse. I wasn’t a stranger to the fair, indeed I’d judged the photography division for two years and spent one season documenting the tireless people who volunteer their time to make it happen, but I’d never gone beyond my comfort zone, had never stepped foot within the beef barn or mingled with the 4-H kids and their swine and goats and calves. Or, I should say, I had but on a very limited basis.
Life, I’ve learned, is only lived through the act of extending boundaries, of experiencing new places, new foods, new people. For some this comes naturally, but, alas, not for me. I’m constantly battling my self-consciousness, my uneasiness, phobias so ingrained that their genesis forever remains shrouded, impossible to evoke or summon. So much of what I do—the writing, processing photographs, printing, research, reading—is done in solitary confinement that when I’m obligated to step into the public eye I cringe and balk like a stubborn mule. That I’ve picked a career with persistent public obligations is surely a cosmic joke.
What I had witnessed of the fair, though, was of a community not just at its best but reveling in—and revealing—its best. Every entry no matter how primitive or minor was an unabashed representation of an individual’s passion, vision and talent. And, too, every entry was an act of courage. Implicitly understood was that their best (and, by inference, themselves) would be judged and weighed and, fairly or unfairly, compared to others with more experience and skill, sometimes by people whose decisions could only be interpreted as criminally imperceptive if not willfully obtuse.
That I did not match their courage with my lens was disappointing, and, perhaps, a lesson to learn from. Paramount in my mind was the axiom “He who hesitates is lost,” inculcated in my childhood and carried across the decades like so much baggage to a starry night in a riverine town where it suddenly applied to my own life and failings. It was, I also realized, merely an older version of Admiral Farragut’s defiant “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead,” or National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore’s “Go big or go home.” Either do it right or don’t do it at all.
Part of my problem, I believed, was a lack of purpose. It’s one thing to endeavor tirelessly for months on end for a tangible, concrete goal, and another to sniff around with only a vague notion of what one wants or desires. And yet I knew what I wanted: to do a Jim Richardson on my adopted town, to chronicle its events, its people, its vitality, into a panoramic overview of historic, if not epic, proportions. Decades ago Richardson, another National Geographic photographer, adopted the small town of Cuba, and over the years has created an unheralded portfolio of a time and a town unlike anything in the annals of photography or photojournalism. I wanted, in my own small way, to replicate his work, and to continue building upon my year-long project for the Kansas Humanities Council and the Smithsonian Institution. And I wanted to do it now—at my age I didn’t have decades left, or so I felt.
But without a plan or course of action, coupled with that annoying tendency to hold back, I fudged my chance. I failed. And though I knew that with luck there would be another year, another fair, another chance for redemption, it was a long way away, and without guarantee or certainty of transformation on my part.
For now there were only fleeting moments of the unwinding and endless recriminations, of long exposures and kaleidoscopic light patterns imprinting the velvety night, the dispersing crowds trickling away and the last holdouts begging for a final ride before the machinery stuttered to a standstill, lights flickering out one by one and in the darkness one more ghost perambulating homeward on a thin sliver of moonlit road, the silent arcs of lightning bugs transcribing the air, the seasons first cadence of crickets.