David Williams Puts American State Fair Food Under the Spotlight

Photographer David William’s series may induce nostalgia and a hankering for those often greasy, always good state fair grub. 

One of the most important highlights of any state fair is the food, and these are what photographer David Williams is putting the spotlight on in his ongoing personal project, State Fare. State fairs have been around for a long time – Wikipedia says that the first U.S. state fair happened in Syracuse, New York in 1841 – and as such have become tightly interwoven into the American experience. Some of you might have memories of visiting state fairs: going around to take in all the sights and enjoying state fair grub as you go along.

As its title implies, State Fare is all about state fair food staples – turkey legs, corn dogs, deep fried anything, and all. Other than the food itself, David also captures the people that prepare and enjoy them with gusto.

We spoke with David to learn more about State Fare, as well as his experience and takeaways while shooting the series.

Phoblographer: Please tell us about State Fare. I think it’s a refreshing (and quite hunger-inducing, might I add) take on American fairs. Why did you decide to feature the food here, in particular?

David: State Fare is a photo project documenting America’s state fairs. I decided to focus on food because it’s a huge part of the fair and I need something specific to focus on or I struggle to make good pictures. I am often hired to take food and restaurant photos for magazines and want this project to help push me to make those pictures better, too.

Phoblographer: In your process of working on State Fare, what are some of your biggest takeaways, learnings, or realizations? This could be on the food, American culture, the fairs in general, or anything else that you might have in mind.

David: There are many differences from fair to fair across the country, but the tradition and innovation of the state fair remain the same. A strange sort of city arises on the outskirts of a town to bring its residents the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of the state fair. They all mostly offer the same types of food and every region has its specialty (lots of cheese in Wisconsin and Minnesota, mussels and oysters in Maryland, etc).

Phoblographer: Can you share with us an anecdote or two about your most memorable experiences while shooting this series?

David: After The New York Times published some images from the project, someone emailed me to tell me that he was the winner in a photo I took that year of a milk chugging contest. I enjoy emails like this from strangers. Anything that reminds me that my pictures are being seen and enjoyed by people out in the world and not just on Instagram or a computer screen.

Another time a guy emailed me pictures he took of bacon signs at the Wisconsin State Fair. No subject line or body text, just four photo attachments.

Phoblographer: What are some of your favorite images from State Fare? Please tell us about them.

David: I enjoy the candid moments that involve a bit of luck on both my end as the photographer and their end on whatever thing they were doing that justified me pushing the button on my camera. Most people are self-conscious about eating, myself included. When you put a camera with a big flash in their face, many people tense up and question my invasion of their (public) privacy.

People at the fairs are generally in a good mood and happy to be in a photograph even if the moment we share is very brief. I tend to work very fast and don’t realize a photo is good until I look at it while editing.

Phoblographer: Now, let’s talk about you. Please tell us about yourself and your work.

David: I was raised in Denver, Colorado but now live in New York and work for magazines like The New Yorker, GQ, Bloomberg Businessweek, and others. On top of that, I shoot a lot of projects during the year that tend to focus on the documentation of modern life through unconventional subjects and stories.

Phoblographer: How did you get into photography?

David: My dad has been a magazine and newspaper subscriber my entire life so flipping the pages and looking at those photographs were some of the first influences of editorial photography. My mom took thousands of photos of my family growing up so when I was in high school I asked if I could borrow her camera to take pictures at punk and hardcore shows. From there I attended photography school and shortly after graduating I moved to New York and worked at a grocery store until I started to get work in the industry.

Phoblographer: You shoot quite a wide variety of images both in your personal and commissioned work. But what do you like photographing the most?

David: I enjoy commissions that reflect the interests seen in my personal work. Obviously, as someone who relies on commissioned work to make a living, that’s not always the case. So I enjoy working for publications who are eager to have my creative vision help bring their story to life. Whether it be a portrait, food, or event, I’m happy to work for whoever will have me.

Phoblographer: What inspires you?

David: Friends, family, Les Blank, my cats, my wife, the VHS tape Show by The Cure, playing hockey, taking walks, the music video for “Dayglo” by Hazel that Russell Bates directed in 1995, Todd Haynes, gardening, grilling, reading books, traveling, Penelope Spheeris, sitting on a beach, watching “Frasier.”

All images from State Fare by David Williams. Used with permission. Visit David’s website to see more of his work.