Sheep, Chicks and Geese Scurry at the County Fair

As photographer Dan Nelken has catalogued, the county fair is the place for family farms to showcase their prized livestock

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Maura McCarthy

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Delaware County Fair 2002
(Maura McCarthy)

Delaware County Fair 2002

Photographer Dan Nelken started his career in the 1970s, shooting black-and-white essays for magazines, and later specialized in commercial work and portraiture for design firms and advertising agencies in New York City.

Nelken was born in Israel, but from childhood onward he lived in Toronto and Chicago. So he was a little surprised at himself when he bought a second home in 1990 in Delaware County, New York, in the Catskill Mountains. “The idea of a country house—it's amazing what you do for your loved ones,” Nelken says.

After a few years, a neighbor began to pressure him to visit the county fair to shoot the scenery. Nelken, having never been to a county fair before, put him off because he had things to do around the new house. But in 1998 he relented, and visited the Delaware County Fair.

“I was really blown away by the visuals of what I saw,” Nelken says. “I took a couple of rolls with my Hasselblad [camera] and decided that next year I would be there opening day.” And so he was.

Thus began a project that would become his first book: Till the Cows Come Home: County Fair Portraits.

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Schoharie County Sunshine Fair 2003
(Maura McCarthy)

For the next seven years, Nelken traveled to any county fair within a three-hour drive of his vacation home. At first, he photographed many different elements of fair life: the agriculture, the midway, the merchants, the spectators. Each, in his view, could be the subject of a great photographic essay. But in the end, he chose to focus on the agricultural competitions—what he calls “the original concept of country fairs”—and the farmers who entered them.

In the photo above, Jessica Goblet—the 2003 New York State Maple Queen—shows off one of her family’s prize-winning sheep at the Schoharie County Sunshine Fair while her father, Jim Goblet, adjusts the animal’s legs. Jessica’s three siblings also show their livestock, including sheep, pigs and cows.

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Delaware County Fair 2001
(Maura McCarthy)

In the competitions, animals were judged on their breeding and farmers were judged on their execution of protocols for handling their animals. The competitors Nelken met were mostly family or part-time farmers, and they would devote almost an entire week to a competition in which the only reward was a ribbon.

“You could have an animal that would never win Best in Show, but if you know how to show it in the best possible light you could end up winning the showmanship competition,” Nelken says. Here, at the 2001 Delaware County Fair, a future farmer named Jonathan awaits the judges’ decision on his ram.

What fascinated Nelken the most was the time warp he went through each time he visited a county fair.

“Looking at the photographs, I began to realize, also having done the research on other photographs that people had shot over the various decades, there isn’t that much of a difference between 1940s and my image except that theirs is in black-and-white and mine’s in color,” he says.

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Chenango County Fair 2002
(Maura McCarthy)

Chenango County Fair 2002

As a newcomer to farm culture, Nelken faced a steep learning curve when it came to livestock. The judges’ rulings trained his eye to look more closely at a hog’s rump, a ewe’s wool or the shape of a cow’s teats.

He also learned how the animal’s behavior and appearance reflected the farmer, as in the case of Carl, above.

“I just loved his intensity, as opposed to Jonathan, who was intense but had an angelic look about him. Carl is a serious farmer type,” Nelken says. “The fact that the animal is willing to stand there without moving says something about Karl as well. This is something that you’d only know after watching dairy and beef competitions and seeing how the cows misbehave. These are powerful animals, and they are very skittish.”

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Delaware County Fair 2005
(Maura McCarthy)

Delaware County Fair 2005

Nelken learned from future farmers like Carl that the animals need human contact to remain calm. “I find it fascinating how comfortable and intimate [farmers] are with their cows,” says Nelken. “I have photographs of using them as pillows, kids lying on top of cows asleep. They will hug them. It’s like a pet dog.”

Scenes like the one above are common, according to Nelken. Cows require a lot of attention—frequent changes in hay, milking twice a day. Some farmers will catch a nap whenever they can. “These fairs last anywhere from three-four days to a week, and … you take care of your animals during that whole time period,” he says.

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Schoharie County Sunshine Fair 2001
(Maura McCarthy)

Over the course of his project, Nelken was struck by how children would spend months caring for their animals while fully realizing that their wards could soon be dead, either slaughtered or by accident.

At the 2001 Schoharie County Fair, Nelken heard a girl talking about her pet rabbit. Like most subjects, she was very accommodating and agreed to be photographed. The following year he came back and showed her this photo and asked about her champion rabbit. “Oh it died,” she said matter-of-factly. “It broke its leg because my dog was chasing it.”

Another young pig farmer told Nelken that he calls his hogs “Thing 1” or “Thing 2” because he knows that they will almost certainly end up being butchered.

The owners of prize-winning animals have the option to put their livestock up for auction at the end of the fair; it’s the only compensation they get for all their work. The animals are sold for either breeding purposes or meat, and if they aren’t bid on or put up for auction, the owners might keep them for the next year’s fair.

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Delaware County Fair 2003
(Maura McCarthy)

Delaware County Fair 2003

Nelken took great pleasure in seeing most of his subjects year after year. The Grant family from Delaware County relished their prowess at raising chickens. “The odds were, every year one of the sisters was going to win the grand champion,” Nelken says. “They would go back and forth.”

He first met Norie, top left, in 2000 when a friend volunteered Nelken to take her photo, much to his dismay. “I really didn’t want to do it because people always expect photographs in return and they usually hate the way they look in photographs,” he recalls. “I ended up taking about a half a dozen of this girl holding the chicken and when I did my contact sheet, I was floored. I’m going, my God, I have been totally blind to a whole world that is there.”

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Delaware County Fair 2001
(Maura McCarthy)

Nelken met Norie’s sister, Mary, at the 2001 Delaware County Fair. While their family was packing up to go to the fair, one of Mary’s favorite hens had left an egg in the barn. “Just leave it there,” said her mother. Mary insisted that she couldn’t leave the egg unattended, not after the hen had brooded over it, so she held it in her armpit as they drove to the fair.

As the family story goes, by the time they arrived at the fair, the egg started to hatch. Here, Mary shows off the chick that she refused to abandon.

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Delaware County Fair 2005
(Maura McCarthy)

Over the years Nelken had photographed several baby beauty pageants, but he was dissatisfied with the results—until he tried again at the 2005 Delaware County Fair.

“The kids didn’t care because they were toddlers, but it was really the parents trying to control their kids, trying to look nonchalant,” he says. “But they have this fierce sense of competition between them. It was just absolutely wonderful. I knew when I saw it that I had all the gestures in play.”

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Madison County Fair 2001
(Maura McCarthy)

These girls at the 2001 Madison County fair are listening to pageant contestants answer the question, “If you had a year off from school, what would you do?”

The winning answer, according to Nelken: “I would just hang around and watch television.”

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Schoharie County Sunshine Fair 2003
(Maura McCarthy)

Much like how young farmers would nurture and raise a calf or a chick without truly knowing the animal’s championship potential until maturation, Nelken often found that he couldn’t judge his shots until he developed them into photographs.

Nelken would see sheep arriving at the fairgrounds with thick coats of wool and then watch people shearing and clipping the animals by hand to prepare them for competition.

A case in point was when, at the 2003 Schoharie County Fair, he found the Goblet boys shearing their ewe and photographed her from both sides, shorn and unshorn. But he thought the background was too busy and asked the boys to let him photograph the sheep the following year.

“We moved the sheep in front of a barn so that the background would be dark. I took three rolls of film as a whole process,” says Nelken. “And it just wasn’t as effective, it wasn’t as good. You think you can improve up on it, and it’s something totally different.”

So he stuck with the 2003 photo.

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Ostego County Fair 2002
(Maura McCarthy)

“It was really the flip-flops that did it for me,” says Nelken, recalling when he asked the Maple Queen if he could photograph her as she sat on a bench drinking a soda at the 2002 Otsego County Fair. He initially planned on taking a close-up shot of her but when he saw the looks on the barkers’ eyes, he backed up until they were included in the frame.

Among the queen’s responsibilities are giving awards at various county contests and answering questions about making maple [syrup]. The following year, Nelken saw her with the same sash and asked, “How did you become Maple Queen two years in a row?”

“There was nobody who wanted to be Maple Queen and they asked if I would be queen again,” she answered. “And I said, ‘Of course!’ ”

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Afton County Fair 2005
(Maura McCarthy)

Afton County Fair 2005

To prepare for tending their animals at fair time, a lot of farmers set up tables, refrigerators, trucks and tents near the stalls. According to Nelken, some even bring televisions. “It’s another example of the surreal environment where you are eating, sleeping, and there are your livestock right next to you.”

Nelken says that when he came across this tableau, he was “just praying that the people don’t show up and I have to explain myself, but it worked out. I could not have topped this if I tried.”

This summer will be Nelken’s last making the rounds of Upstate New York fairs; he has sold his country home. Up next: a similar project on demolition derbies.