It’s a weekday in June, and German-born local photographer Frank Döring is looking forward to attending the evening’s greased-pig competition at the Bourbon County Fair.
“There are good ones and not-so-good ones. This is one of the good ones,” Döring says of the fairs and carnivals that are the settings for his photographic study of people and animals, selections of which are on display at the University of Kentucky Art Museum as part of the exhibition “Frank Döring: I Would Redesign that Udder.”
The exhibition features photographs that Döring took at county and state agricultural fairs within an hour’s drive of Lexington.
Döring took his first picture at a carnival in New Jersey during graduate school 30 years ago. Since then, he worked as a cognitive science researcher and philosophy professor before trading academia for the camera lens in 2000. His work has been exhibited locally, nationally and internationally.
Although Döring was captivated by the rural fair and carnival three decades ago, he didn’t return to that setting until 2011, when he began photographing several fairs each summer.
For a self-described “city boy,” the rural social gatherings provide glimpses of an aspect of mainstream American life often ignored by urban arts institutions and artists themselves. And from a practical standpoint, county and state fairs have an abundance of two things Döring has liked to shoot the most during his photography tenure: people and animals.
“There’s this whole genre of street photography in big cities — you can’t do that here,” Döring says, “especially if you are looking for places where people congregate. I always like looking at people and animals’ interaction, and the fair turned out to be incredibly rich.”
UK Art Museum curator Janie Walker says Döring’s exhibited work shows an important side of the rural American experience.
“There isn’t a long tradition of photographing these agricultural fairs, and yet that is so much a part of the country,” says Welker. “People on the coast don’t know what’s happening in the middle of the country and that’s where he lives.”
Welker says Döring’s work, which at times is wry or playful, also offers us a glimpse into the fairgrounds’ “whole way of life.”
“It is this cross-section of life and the human comedy, not in the sense of necessarily being funny, but it has all walks of life — people having a good time, getting sno-cones, going on rides in the midway, watching magic tricks.”.
In exploring that way of life, Döring has cultivated a deep respect for farmers and their families.
“I have utmost respect for farmers. I find it totally unimaginable to run the kinds of risks they run,” Döring says. “Getting close to that and looming over their shoulders, being out there with them, is something I totally appreciate.”
Döring is especially captivated by the children he encounters who are caring for animals.
“They act very responsibly and very seriously,” he says. “They seem to act anyway more responsibly than most American kids that age. I find that very engaging.”
Candace Chaney is a Lexington-based writer and critic.
If you go
“Frank Döring: I Would Redesign That Udder”
What: The photographer’s images taken at state and county agricultural fairs in Kentucky
When: Through Aug. 20
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Fri.; noon-5 p.m. Sat., Sun.; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs.; closed Mon. (Closed July4)
Where: University of Kentucky Art Museum in the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St.
Special event: Curator tour with Janie Welker 6:30-7:30 p.m. July 14