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The state fair: Through a plastic camera lens

The smell of fried food is in the air, the big wheel on the midway is turning, Labor Day is approaching and kids are heading back to school as the state fair gets under way across America.

Along with the families and friends setting out to enjoy the festivals are the photographers that document them. And after six years covering the Illinois State Fair, photographer Justin Fowler set out to capture the essence of the event differently than he's done before. This time, his editor at the State Journal-Register challenged him to shoot with a crummy plastic camera lens.

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

"Everyone's A Winner" A fairgoer makes his way through the crowds along Central Avenue with his winnings from a midway game in Springfield at the 2011 Illinois State Fair.

Fowler's thoughts about the fair brought me right back to my days as a young child climbing on farm equipment, walking through the dairy barn, and wolfing down foot-long hot dogs at a Guinness world-record pace. He said:

Memories are fragments captured from our lives and then tucked away to reminisce upon in a rocking chair with generations to come. Never perfect nor complete, they represent a mere sliver of a bigger picture.

Like our memories, these photographs capture just a snippet of information. But when combined with our own mental pictures of the 2011 Illinois State Fair, each serves as a reminder of the bits and pieces that make the fair special.

That's the unique power of photography. It instantly can transport you back to a specific moment and recall each sensation: the smell of fried everything wafting through the air; the slight chill as you enter the dairy barn; the screams of excitement echoing around the midway.

He shared a few pictures with us from his experience, and talked with me recently about the project.

Jonathan Woods: What inspired you to take on this project in this way?

Justin Fowler: "I've always been fascinated with different types of photography and loved playing with different films and ways to create images. I happened across a Holga lens adapted for the Canon 5D.

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

"Double Ribbon" Jasmine Padilla, of Monmouth, Ill., poses for a photograph with her double ribbons for winning Landrance Grand Champion Sow and Landrance Reserve Grand Champion Sow.

Jonathan Woods: Why choose the state fair?

Justin Fowler: It's dangerous photographing events that happen year after year. I've photographed every angle, and the fair is pretty similar every year. As a photographer I can go out there and say, "I know an easy picture can be made here, and then I can get out of here and go home." When I sense that, I look at the situation I've seen six years in a row and push myself, find a challenge and try something new.

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

"Caramel Apples" Baylee Smith, 13, of Springfield, Ill., and Maddie Gleeson, 13, Kelsey Builta, 13, Cressa Wagner, 13, all three of Rochester, Ill., take a break from the midway to enjoy caramel apples.

Jonathan Woods: How did this project pan out?

Justin Fowler: My editor, Rich Saal, is good about pushing me to find different ways to do things. He threw out the idea, five days later I was out shooting it. I went to the fair with only one lens and camera. I had to see the fair through this lens. That way you can't rely on the institutional knowledge that's gotten you that far. I enjoy that challenge, it's good for creative mojo.

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

"A Work In Progress" Sculptor Sharon BuMann of Central Square, N.Y., examines her work as she sculpts the Illinois State Fair Butter Cow in its refrigerated display case in the Dairy Building.

Jonathan Woods: What were some of the challenges?

Justin Fowler: The biggest challenge was the lens. It's a pinhole -- at f11 (meaning the lens lets in very little light visible to the human eye). Using the camera's viewfinder you can't see anything but highlights (the brightest light) in the camera, so I had to shoot in really bright light. I would look at the highlights to judge composition. It makes you remember the old days -- where photographers had to throw the hood over their head and look through the viewfinder. 

Justin L. Fowler / The State Journal-Register

"Ear Plugs Required" A plume of smoke rises up over the Multi Purpose Arena as a tractor begins its run during the Illinois Tractor Pullers Association Truck and Tractor Pull.

Jonathan Woods: How would you summarize the experience?

Justin Fowler: It was a fun adventure all around. The images could always be better, but I want to explore the world with my camera, and sometimes that gets lost. It's easy as a staffer to get in a rut, but a project like this makes me fall in love with photography all over again, and I really appreciate when my boss gives me a chance to do that.

Be sure to check out the full image gallery for an unobstructed view and over two dozen of Fowler's images. You can also see more of Fowler's work at the State Journal-Register or on his website.