WILLIAM BULLARD, SHORTLISTED 3RD BIENNIAL’S GRANT 

Carny

For the past few years, I have been photographing the carnies and showmen who work the

games or “joints” at the local county fairs in Upstate New York. I am drawn to the

extraordinary care and pride they take in their trade: the artful, extravagant design of their

booths, how they camouflage themselves to vanish into a background of oversized and

overstuffed prizes, how they cooperate subtly amongst themselves to work their “marks” or

customers, their endless patter and rich jargon. Many of them have been working these fairs

for forty or fifty years; a grueling summer and fall schedule of state and county fairs that takes

them the length and breadth of country. If you catch them in the early morning as they are

setting up their joints, they are a warm and garrulous lot, generous with their stories, and

overflowing with colorful language and opinions. Some of this character is, I hope, captured in

this collection of images.

But this is a subject that begs for voice and stories. Over the years, I have become at least

friendly and often familiar with a number of the carnies who tend to work the same fairs year

after year. If I were awarded a grant, I would invite myself to spend a full day each with three

or four of them whose life stories I’ve begun to get some flavor of – photographing them at

work and at rest, setting up their joints, working their marks, retreating to their trailers,

recording their voices and stories, and generally documenting the cycle of a typical day. I

envision both a book and a digital story project. The latter would consist of a Kens Burns-style

documentary, combining still images, the recorded voices of the carnies, and the environmental

sounds of the fair. These carnies represent a facet of America that endures in every state and

almost every county in the country. It is untouched by fashion, politics, and technology and

remains pure in its appeal to the simple lure of the game and the garish prize that “every child

wins.”

Pictures at an Exhibition

My current project portrays visitors to museums, galleries, and monuments in the act of

contemplating, ignoring, mirroring, or interacting with the art around them. Using the works

themselves, and the lighting, geometry, and surfaces of these carefully designed galleries as a

kind of impromptu studio or stage set, I am endeavoring to reveal the silent but complex drama

that is continually unfolding in these spaces. As I hope these sample images suggest, there is

irony, humor, and often profound emotion in these encounters. At the recent Irving Penn show

at the Met in New York City, I was first struck by how contrived, perhaps even condescending,

his famous worker portraits seemed to my 21st c. eye. But as I looked at own candid portraits

framed by his, I wondered whether mine were any less contrived, showed any less of a

photographer’s bias, were any less constructed by the special grammar of focal length, aspect

ratio, grain, tonality, etc. Mine were as fictional as his – fabrications of the camera’s frame and

of its power to create formal relationships, juxtapositions, symmetries, and, by doing so, to

suggest story and meaning. Certainly no eye, not even mine, had seen what appears in my

photographs. The closer I looked, and the more often I returned to photograph in those

galleries, the more studied, the more studio-like, my own photographs became. Over the

month I worked there, my purpose seemed to approach Penn’s with all the attendant risks of

exploitation and caricature.

To the degree that any work of art exists not in its own space but in the mutual interrogation

between the work and the observer, I am seeking to create images that suggest the questions

the works are asking of their audience and, perhaps, a glimpse into the responses. The Irving

Penn show suggested one set of questions, but every artist, every gallery or designed space,

presents new opportunities. The range of my investigation is as broad and varied as the art and

spaces themselves. It is really a limitless project, but one well suited to my residence in New

York City and fascination with art museums world-wide. The project has raised countless

questions for me about selection, sequence, and organization; the editorial and curatorial

counsel that might come from the project’s recognition by The Biennial Grant would be

invaluable.

Although I've been working on this concept for a few years, I have mostly selected images here

that I’ve made over the last year in New York art museums, with particular emphasis on the

Irving Penn, Michelangelo, and Living Art shows at the Met and the Zoe Leonard retrospective

at the Whitney. Were I fortunate enough to receive a grant, I would be able to extend the

project to European museums, particularly those whose contemporary architecture provides a

fascinating variety of new “stage sets” to work on.

Village Health Works

Beginning in 1993, Burundi suffered the same genocidal violence that notoriously afflicted

neighboring Rwanda, only in Burundi the war lasted for more than a decade, took the lives of

hundreds of thousands of people, and reduced the country to one of the poorest nations in the

world. Barely escaping with his life, Deogratias Niyikonziza, then a medical student in Burundi,

came to New York City as a refugee. He struggled for months in homelessness and low wage

jobs but was eventually discovered by some enlightened New Yorkers, who became his

guardians and sponsored his education. After several years at Columbia, Harvard, and

Darmouth Medical School, Deo eventually returned to his home village in southern Burundi to

create Village Health Works – a clinic, a school, and a constellation of economic cooperatives on

a 25 acre campus whose land – and the labor needed to build it – was donated by the

community. Today Deo’s vision is burgeoning into the construction of a $20 million hospital

that will bring modern health care, and with it the foundation for future prosperity, to southern

Burundi. His story was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s most recent book, The Strength That

Remains.

In January 2018, I travelled to Burundi to volunteer photography services to Village Health

Works and to assist in their development efforts. However, the extraordinarily warm and

generous community of Kigutu has inspired me to return next year to pull off a “give not take”

portrait project with the community, who delight in seeing their own image in the camera but

have no means or history of owning a physical print of themselves or family. I hope to return to

the village to create a pop-up studio with lights, cameras, backdrops, a printer, and some plastic

frames with the idea of giving members of the village who wish a very high quality, physical

portrait of themselves and family. I will be working with a high resolution camera whose files

will also be suitable for producing large format prints that the directors of the new hospital

would like to use in its halls and breezeways to raise the morale of the village and to further

identify Village Health Works with the local people who have given so much to help build it.

The grant would be extremely helpful in offsetting the considerable travel and production

expenses behind the project, which will otherwise come out of my own pocket.