Photographing the Thrill of the Tunbridge World’s Fair!
There are many iconic elements of the Tunbridge World’s Fair, but none more central than the track. Here, before the grandstand, for generations, farmers have paraded their prized livestock. Here tractors roar pulling the unyielding transfer sled and, until recently, cars were mashed into heaps of scrap metal before gasping demolition derby audiences.
From the very first, however, the reigning track event at New England’s agricultural fairs, however, was harness racing. The gait used in the sport is trotting, which can sound rather genteel to those who haven’t thrilled at the rail for these races.
This event is just a memory at most fairs, but not in Tunbridge, where the thunder of racing horses still fills the air in September.
For the photographer, harness racing presents great opportunity, and difficulty. The PA system crackles with introduction of horses and drivers; there is the crack of the starter’s pistol, and they’re off! You have the advantage of knowing, without question, an event of excitement and visual interest is about to unfold – and then it does!
Where to best capture that excitement, however? The shot from the stands is too far removed from the action.
The Corner’s the Key
In 1990, I put my 300mm Nikon lens on an F body and made my way out to the far side of the track, over where the horses are stabled. I positioned myself low on the outside rail. Getting the best angle took some time; fortunately, there are many heats. Finally I found a sweet spot where the race could be framed in the broad sweep of track with the inside rail on the far right. The great Ferris wheel rises at the top, echoing the circular track and wheels of the sulkies. Add to these elements the strong lateral line of the outer rail, ringed by spectators, and, above it, a panoply of food concessions, crowned by the “Fried Dough Boys” signage. I’ve eaten those fried treats only once or twice in many decades, but always delight in seeing the signs, which have spiced many a fair photograph with visual interest. Here, I love the visual contrast of “Dough Boys” with the exploding sinuous energy of the race.
This photograph was taken with a manual lens. It was impossible to adjust the rapidly changing focus once the race was in view, so the shot was carefully zone-focused before the action arrived. The exposure was quick to stop the action of the horses’ hooves, probably 500th of a second.
With ASA 400 film, this still allowed sufficient depth of field to keep the background discernible.
Thank the Gods
All my preparation would have come to naught had the racers sped past in a different arrangement. Exploding in the lead, we find a horse straining under the full pull of the turn. Everything works here! The horse’s magnificent head pops against a white tarp far behind; the body and darkest hooves articulate beautifully from the speckled surface of the track; the high key of the lead leg flashes from the dark shadow at the bottom of the scene. I love, too, the framing of the sulky, rider, and horse by the contrasting white and black wheels.
It takes more than one horse to make a race, however, and we see, wonderfully, the competition strung out behind. Unlike the lead, separate from the pack, these two overlap in competitive struggle.
We can see all this detail in the print. In the moment when the photograph was taken, however, none of this beautiful artistry was apparent. It all happened too quickly! I take credit for good framing, correct exposure, sharp focus, and a steady tripod. I thank the gods, however, for that wonderful lead horse! I set the stage, but forces far beyond me, with seeming magic, arranged the players.
The Trip Home
The ride home from the Tunbridge Fair is always special. There’s a calm in the sweet fall air; my heart and mind are filled with wonderful moments and memories. This fair I have just departed is just one in a rich tapestry of fairs going back decades, that flood my thoughts. I find myself remembering neighbors and loved ones now grown and gone, many now forever departed from these precious days and seasons we have here for such a brief time.
Making my way home one evening, I spied a hay tedder by the side of the road. On another day, perhaps, it would have simply been a piece of farm machinery at rest. On this evening, however, with the sounds and sights of many fairs echoing within, I saw that tedder in new light.
I thought of all the farmers I’ve known, and countless others before them, who’ve quieted their equipment for a few days each September to head over the hill to Tunbridge for the World’s Fair. I could see them with their families, perhaps a few prized vegetables for Floral Hall, a goat, some chickens in tow.
That tedder suddenly seemed to come to life. It became a fair ride, a tilt-a-whirl in my mind, spinning all that rich history.
Perhaps, you will sense here some of the movement, the distant echo, and remembered faces from the Tunbridge World’s Fair. This time of year, within me, they rise and fall and turn again.
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