Deep-Fried America on a Stick

The Terror and Delight of the Wisconsin State Fair in Portraits

By Sophie D. Gilden

All photos by Bruce Gilden

Magnum photographer Bruce Gilden—who also happens to be my husband—has photographed the Yakuza in Japan, traipsed through the slums of Haiti too many times to count, and stalked the streets of New York City for decades shooting the strange faces floating by. But it was a recent visit to the Wisconsin State Fair that produced his most exotic work to date.

For 11 days in August, a total of 1,012,552 visitors passed through the turnstiles at State Fair Park in West Allis, a suburb of Milwaukee. They came for deep-fried cookie-dough fondue on a stick, deep-fried peanut butter and jelly on a stick, deep-fried s’mores on a stick, deep-fried Milky Way bars on a stick, deep-fried cream cheese on a stick (with bacon), deep-fried fat Elvises on a stick. They came for cream puffs, cheese curds, 18-inch corn dogs, barbecued turkey legs the size of children’s thighs, beer-battered deep-fried bacon-wrapped cheddar hot dogs, beer-battered macaroni-and-cheese bites with Jack cheese and bacon. Of course, they also came for the local brews: Miller Lite, Miller Genuine Draft, Miller64, Leinenkugel “craft” beer (owned and operated by MillerCoors LLC). Once Bruce had digested his trip, I asked him a few questions.

VICE: Why did you choose this particular location and event for the shoot?
Bruce Gilden:
I traveled to Milwaukee for Postcards from America, an ongoing collaborative project in which a loose group of photographers choose a site that intrigues them and gather there to play together like a visual band. Martin Parr and I went to Milwaukee in August, and two more groups of photographers will pass through in January and April. This is the third segment that I participated in. The first one was in Rochester, New York, and the second was in Miami. Now I’ve got a Guggenheim fellowship to continue this work in other places too.

Is there a link between the three segments of Postcards?
Obviously they’re all in America, so to me it’s a continuation of the previous series I did on foreclosures in four different cities in the US. What’s good about Postcards is that it is a project on its own, but for me, as for many of the photographers involved, it’s also an experimental creative space that feeds back into our individual work. 

How so?
In Rochester, the deal was that we had to come up with 100 pictures in two weeks. It’s pretty hard, so to get some confidence, besides my usual medium of black-and-white film, I started using a Leica M9 digital camera so I could see what I was getting as I went along. I began to do portraits of people because the streets were empty and I needed 100 photos. Then I went to Florida, and I did the whole project in color, shooting mostly faces with a digital midsize camera.

So now you’re a color photographer?
No. I’m going to continue doing color, but I’m not closing the door to black-and-white. I had not done color since 1968, and I was surprised by how easily I adapted to it. When I arrived in Milwaukee, I was committed to doing all the work in color, digitally.

And you shot mostly close-up portraits?
Yes, mostly, but these pictures did not just sprout out of my head. I had been thinking for at least 20 years about doing portraits of people with just their faces, and now I’m finally doing it. It’s a well-thought-out and long process from the conception of the idea until you physically do it.

So all these people you photographed were at the fair?
When I arrived in Milwaukee I tried to photograph people on the street, but there was nobody around, I guess because there were 120,000 people going to the fair every day, so that’s where I went. I don’t shoot much. I average five to ten portraits a day.

What characteristics attract you to a face?
To me there is beauty everywhere, but I’m very particular. There’s a certain detail that I find interesting visually, and the strength of the picture is in that detail. You have to be able to see what will make a good picture, and then you need to have a collaboration between you and your subject to make it a reality. At the fair, a very high percentage of people said yes when I asked to take their photograph, but that doesn’t mean the picture always worked.

What sorts of things were going through your mind while you were shooting these portraits?
Tons of thoughts: I have never seen people so large. What did these guys eat that made them so big? This kid is going to poke himself in the eye with the stick of that huge corn dog. This guy is going home with 12 cream puffs after waiting 30 minutes in line to place his order. So many women with the most gorgeous blue eyes, are they real or are they contact lenses? Some women’s feet are so swollen, I feel their pain at each step. After seven hours of almost nonstop walking, saying to myself, Just one more trip around the fair, I looked forward to dinner and sleep so I could repeat the cycle again the following day.

What’s your next project?
Depends on the faces.

All photos by Bruce Gilden

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