The Digital Journalist
State Fair

by Alison Beck

July 2006

"I couldn't help thinking that if aliens ever landed on earth and you only had a few hours to help them understand America, all you would have to do is take them to any state fair. For me, they are a microcosm of America--in all its glory and weirdness--at any given point in time." --Arthur Grace

State Fair of Texas (Dallas), 2003: Competitor in State Fair Corny Dog Contest wolfs down another corny dog in allotted time.

Arthur Grace
Among the 20 million Americans drawn to state fairs throughout the country each year is award-winning photographer Arthur Grace. He was introduced to these annual gatherings while covering national elections for Time magazine in 1980, 1984, and 1988. While following presidential and vice-presidential candidates campaigning at fairs in the Midwest, he was fascinated by the diverse sights, sounds, and action. Awestruck as he watched 800 pounds of butter being sculpted into the shape of a voluptuous woman at the 1977 Minnesota State Fair, he was inspired to explore this American cultural phenomenon with his camera. But it wasn't until 2003 following a distinguished career of more than 30 years in photojournalism that he was able to pursue this documentary project.

Arthur Grace began working as a photojournalist at United Press International in 1972. For the next year, he covered sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, drought in West Africa, and the 1973 Mideast War. Boston school busing and school desegregation were among his major stories for The New York Times in 1974 and 1975. At Time magazine from 1978 to 1985, he was assigned to the Carter Administration; photographed life in Eastern Europe, Russia, and Mongolia; martial law in Poland; the U.S. invasion of Grenada; Geraldine Ferraro's vice-presidential campaign, and the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. From 1986 to 1990 as a staff photographer for Newsweek, he photographed cover stories on Mario Cuomo, Robin Williams, Judge Robert Bork, Michael Dukakis, Pope John Paul II and drug czar William Bennett. His major news stories for Newsweek included the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986, Pope John Paul's visit to Poland in 1987, and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit in Moscow. He also produced special black-and-white photo essays on San Francisco street kids, child poverty, and life in Poland. His portraits of candidates who ran in the 1988 presidential election were published in the Newsweek book entitled Choose Me.

Arthur Grace
Arthur Grace has donated his significant photographic archive resulting from this work to the University of Texas Center for American History. Comprised of more than 40,000 images, the collection includes black-and-white negatives, color transparencies, and prints from assignments and freelance work dating from 1973 to the present. His archive visually documents national issues of the late 1970s and 1980s, including presidential and other political campaigns and events, the Olympics, the Solidarity Movement in Poland and life in Eastern Europe, and foreign affairs. The collection includes images of Mark Felt, also known as "Deep Throat," the recently revealed source for investigative reporters Woodward and Bernstein during the Watergate affair.

Acquisition of the Arthur Grace Photographic Archive is part of the Center's initiative to locate, acquire, and make available for research archival collections that document the historical development of the news media in the U.S. ( This extensive archive includes the collections of renowned photojournalists Flip Schulke, Diana Walker, David Hume Kennerly, Dirck Halstead, and Wally McNamee, whose images have captured important national and international newsmakers and events.

North Carolina State Fair (Raleigh), 2003: Participants in demolition derby listen as national anthem is played over grandstand PA system before start of event.

Arthur Grace
While transferring his photographs to the University, Grace shared the idea for his documentary project on state fairs with Dr. Don Carleton, the Center's director, who encouraged him to proceed. As a historian, Dr. Carleton says, "State fairs currently remain among the last authentic links to a rich American past of pageantry that celebrated the agricultural cornucopia flowing from this nation's bountiful small-family farms. With strong roots originating in the late-19th century and in that era's fascination with fairs and celebratory pageants, state fairs are true links to our pastoral past. That is why we were pleased to work with Arthur Grace in sponsoring his new book, State Fair. We feel this outstanding work provides valuable evidence for research and scholarship."

Grace traveled to fairs throughout the heartland -- Texas, California, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, and Virginia -- documenting Middle America at play, but serious about competition. He captured such subjects as prize-winning pigs, sheep and cattle; contests for eating corn dogs and sacking groceries; beauty queens and drum majorettes; marching bands; gravity-defying midway rides; miracle machines for back pain, and demolition derbies. Throughout the project, he worked with Twin Lens Rolleiflex and Leica M rangefinder film cameras, but also shot digital with a Leica Digilux 2, completing the work in 2004. His choice of black and white emphasizes the composition and content of his images. From the thousands of photographs he shot to capture this ritual, 96 were chosen for the publication of State Fair. The book is part of the Center's Focus on American History series edited by Dr. Carleton and published in cooperation with the University of Texas Press.

An exhibition of 35 black-and-white photos from the book opened in May at the Center's Research and Collections Division ( and will remain on display through August 31.

The book, State Fair, is available for purchase through the University of Texas Press ( (1-800-252-3206) and at online and national bookstores.

© Alison Beck

Alison Beck is Associate Director at the University of Texas Center for American History. The Center is the permanent home for the photographic archives of Russell Lee, Cliff and Vi Edom, Arthur Grace, Dirck Halstead, Darryl Heikes, Bruce Hoertel, Cynthia Johnson, David Hume Kennerly, Wally McNamee, Flip Schulke, Margaret Thomas, Diana Walker, and others. Alison handles development for the photojournalists' collections as well as external relations and special projects for the Center. A graduate of the Platypus workshops, she is currently working on a project to document Barbara Conrad, a mezzo-soprano who performed with the Metropolitan Opera and is artistic advisor for the Center’s American Spirituals initiative.