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Sean Perry: Fairgrounds

Exquisitely toned black-and-white images transport us to a twilight world of thrills

Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Sept. 12, 2008

Arts Review

'Sean Perry: Fairgrounds'

Stephen L. Clark Gallery

Arts Review

through Oct. 8

Twilight. Midpoint between day and dark. An ideal time for passing between worlds, for moving from our humdrum workaday domain to a place of blazing electrics, great whirling machinery, and danger. That's the realm we visit in the compelling images of fairgrounds by photographer Sean Perry. He trains his lens on a staple of American amusement and offers a view of it that's somewhere between what we know and what we don't. The rides may be recognizable, the bright lights familiar, but this isn't the carnival as it's so often celebrated on film, the saturated color stock capturing the midway's unrestrained revelry in all its lurid, scarlet spectacle, like the inside of a screaming mouth. Rather, the exquisitely shaded black and white of these photographs, shot near the hour of dusk, move us onto a shadowy plane, artfully perched on the edge of night and disorder. It's no less exciting than the carnival in color; indeed, it may be even more alluring because it appears more secretive, half-hidden in darkness. The shadowy figures seeking thrills here are doing something surreptitious, which just adds to the adrenaline rush of being there.

That we're aware of people in these photographs is a bit of a departure for Perry. In series such as "Transitory," shown at Stephen L. Clark Gallery two years ago, the image-maker honed in on the geometry of the environment: the shapes of buildings and their architectural components as set against nature. There's still a wealth of that in "Fairgrounds" – the curve of a roller-coaster track, the crisscrossing lines of steel support beams for thrill rides such as the Claw and the Steel Spider, the circle of the Ferris wheel – and you draw from these images the same appreciation of form that you do from Perry's others. In the lower right quarter of Promised is a graceful arch silhouetted against a sun too low to be seen. Skyline situates a Ferris wheel similarly low in the frame, but the heavy circle of it is topped by a breathtaking skyscape, with a thick, winding river of cloud backlit by a masked yet still dazzling late-afternoon sun. But whereas Perry's other architecturally oriented photographs often play off the absence of the people who built or inhabit the structures depicted, suggesting a sense of them being deserted for some time, the images here project a strong sense of human presence. These midways aren't the abandoned amusement parks of noir films but ones full of working attractions, turning, spinning, and rolling for people who may not always be seen but are clearly felt.

A few times, Perry lets us glimpse those patrons of the carnival, not in some traditional way (faces in close-up, eyes wide and mouths open in glee as a coaster car starts its terrifyingly delightful descent) but as black legs hurled through space by the massive machinery of the midway. The upended legs of The Claw and the ones sticking out from flying swings in and around ... provide more evidence of the fairground as a world between, where things hang suspended. (The latter image gets my vote as the most captivating in the collection, capturing the mechanics of fun and a swirl of motion with startling clarity and the richest gradations of gray.)

As anyone who's paid attention as night falls can attest, twilight goes quickly. So it must be enjoyed quickly, and the blurring in photographs such as The Mariachi We Met and From Earth to the Moon suggest swift motion, like the haste of kids racing to get in one more ride before the midway closes. Indeed, Perry depicts The Last Ride here, its silhouetted figures mere graphic forms lost in deep midnight black. Seeing them calls up that wistfulness that comes with the carnival's departure. How we're drawn to that thrilling twilight world. The sun is setting. Quick, let's head to the fairgrounds.

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