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William Bullard's Colorful Carnival-Inspired Photos

On the Cover of the December 2022 Issue


Last Updated: 12/01/2022 2:17 pm
Carny, Chatham, 2017 - PHOTO BY WILLIAM BULLARD
  • Photo by William Bullard
  • Carny, Chatham, 2017

William Bullard is an Ghent-based photographer inspired by the chaotic color of carnivals. His human subjects almost melt into the background, as exemplified by Man Blowing Balloon, which was taken at the Columbia County Fair. "I was drawn to the way the carny in hat, shades, orange jacket, camo wear, and with part of his face covered by the balloon—disappears into the garish, oversaturated color of the balloons and prizes. There is something predatory about his look and the allure of the prizes that complicates the all-American innocence of the scene," Bullard says. 

He is fascinated by how carnies are part of the American landscape and small-town traditions that endure unchanged. "I remember Shoot Out the Star games from my childhood 60 years ago. Technology hasn't touched them, and the pleasure is purely analog and physical," Bullard says. "It's about skill and persuasion, the relationship between the 'mark' and the carny, and the lure of the big prize, which is both tawdry and seductive at the same time." 

  • Photo by William Bullard
  • Second Win, Chatham

He's struck by the care carnies take in preparing the games, and describes the color, arrangements of prizes, signage, lighting, and the busy, saturated aesthetic as being like the "plumage on male birds. It's meant to win a passive competition for the eyes and attention of the hundreds of marks walking by," Bullard says. "The carnies are camouflaged by the crazy-quilt design of the booths. It's like a lesson out of natural history—the prey is attracted by the colorful lure, which conceals a dangerous predator. You come to the booth attracted by the innocent big eyes and smiles of all those gigantic stuffed animals, and the next thing you know, you've handed over $5 to, maybe, win a prize worth $2 while listening to the friendly, reassuring patter of the carny." 

Also of interest to Bullard are the egalitarian aspects of how carnivals unite people from all classes, especially during such politically fraught times. "These fairs offer a respite from divisions. They are really for children," he says. "Even in trying economic times, they seem to be about prosperity and commerce, about spending money freely to have fun."

  • Photo by William Bullard
  • Second Win, Chatham

He first started photographing carnies as "landscape portraits'' in 2014 at the Dutchess County Fair in Rhinebeck and the Columbia County Fair in Chatham. Over the years, he's photographed dozens of carnies from all over the United States and has learned they are on a migratory circuit that begins in Florida in the early spring and usually ends in upstate New York and New England in the fall. "Many of them have homes in the South and Florida, where they spend the winter, living off of their earnings from the fair season. They make a decent living, and most seem very happy," he says. 

Carney 4, Rhinebeck
  • Carney 4, Rhinebeck

Bullard is also working on an ongoing street project called "Pictures at an Exhibition'' that collects portraits of visitors in art museums. He's drawn to how certain shows create spaces for an audience that, once stilled by the camera, becomes part of the exhibition. "As a street photographer who is constantly photographing strangers without asking permission, I try to make photographs that honor my subjects, photographs that they would be happy to own," he says.

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