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RJ Kern

'The Last Fair' project serves as a visual time capsule, documenting annual summer animal contests. Reflecting commodity, spectacle, trophy, celebration, as well as responsibility—we witness a disappearing a way of life. “If this was the last year of your county fair, what would you miss most?”

I asked this question to county fair goers at over dozen fairs in 2022 and 2023, in response to the cancellation of the Ramsey County Fair, in St Paul, MN (USA) near my home. “The 4-H animal shows,” became a common response. I considered how joy isn't fully appreciated until gone. Small agrarian communities in the U.S. are changing, often radically. The 360-acre family farm has grown to over 10,000 acres, which has had a huge impact on rural America, and county fairs are among the casualties. A few generations ago, every farm had livestock of various sorts and the competitions at fairs were fierce. Now, the same county fair might have only two entries for a competition. The county fair isn’t necessarily the highlight of a kid’s summer the way it used to be. And yet, through their care of animals, the young people who invest their time in this endeavor express the values that have informed generations. Although there is evidence that this way of life is disappearing as kids leave the farm, the crisis of climate change and a concern for both sustainability and stewardship of the land point to a path for survival for these agricultural practices and traditions.

Inspired by Dutch painters Pieter Bruegel and Hendrick Averkamp, 'The Last Fair' showcases current realities of agrarian practices— highlighted in annual summer animal contests— aspiring to enhance
awareness and interest in the changing face of American pastoral life.

Using a large format camera with studio lighting, I adhere to photo documentary standards and do not allow myself to composite images. Months of planning and permission are required to orchestrate the cast characters in real time.

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