Images of the 2019 Big E Fair

Every September I look forward to photographing the Big E - New England's state fair and carnival.  The Fair draws about one and a half million people over its seventeen-day run, and I race to capture as much of the action as I can.

The Big E has run since 1917 at this location in West Springfield, Massachusetts. It was started as an agricultural fair, and still has a large agriculture component, but the biggest part is now family entertainment. There are horse jumping contests, dog shows, livestock exhibits, rides on the midway, mimes and street performers, a circus, cars on display and a large craft area.  Plus music and live entertainment. It is a quintessential state fair.

The images below are just a sampling of things I saw over the run of the fair. Some of the images below have appeared on the Fair's social media, a few in newspaper and television media, while others are previously unpublished. You will see bigger-than life prints from some of these shots lining the walls when you come to the 2020 Fair. Look for my images at the entry gates and on the walls in our arenas.

Most of these photos were taken under natural light using Nikon D5 cameras with 80-400 and 28-70 lenses. High end SLR cameras still have an advantage focusing on the fast changing scenes on stage, particularly with the stage lights. Mirrorless camera are getting better but their metering and focus still falls short in these situations. A few photos were taken with a Leica M or a Fuji Xpro2.

I am one of the official chroniclers of the Fair, which allows me access to places the public can't be.  That makes it possible to get the close-ups you see below; the performers know I am there and sometimes it's like a dance between us, getting these shots. With the exception of a few group photos, nothing here was posed; it was all shot live, unrehearsed, often in a performance I'd never seen before. Many of our big bands play one show only and there is no chance for me to rehearse what I will shoot.

After 25 years doing this, I am incredibly lucky that my pictures speak for me, and many performers welcome me to their stages in anticipation of a good result.  These photos are all copyright (c) 2019 John Elder Robison, with all rights reserved.

If you see yourself in any of the crowd shots feel free to drop me a line and I'll get you a print. Otherwise these pictures are not for sale; they are what we call editorial images. That means they tell a story; they are not used for advertising or to endorse something.  One day I hope to assemble the best of them into a photo book.

Here are some shots of the AJR Brothers

The fans were quite enthusiastic

The audience was packed tight from here to the stage. For the closeup shots above I was behind the crowd barrier, in a 4-foot wide walkway below the front edge of the stage

Meanwhile up on the front stage . . . .

You can watch the people all day long . . . a never ending parade

I have really noticed the diversity of our crowds these past years. One thing you still don't see too often is a nun, especially at a rock and roll show.

As darkness fell, Skillet prepared to take the main stage. Look at the building crowd out there . . .

And off they went . . .

Here's my old friend Gene Cassidy, president of the Big E, with two of the stars of the Coliseum horse shows. Gene is the only guy on the grounds who always wears a suit.

I'd name the two women if I could but one is a horse show leader and the other our long time organist

The Big E Circus has shows at 1, 4 and 7 every day. Over the 17-day run of the fair the circus performers entertain over 50,000 fans, many of whom come every year.  The Big E circus is actually one of the largest tent shows in America for the time it runs and the Fair is able to get top talent.

The circus shots are always challenging because the tent is so tightly sealed that it's pitch-dark outside the spotlights, even in mid afternoon.  The light does not always reach the top of the tents shots like the one above are difficult both because of timing and also because of lighting.

Outside, elsewhere on the grounds, I ran across Soltar, with wisdom of the ages; log rollers, and even a husband and wife butter sculptor team

Solar told this fine lady she would win the lottery but sadly that did not come to pass, and their next exchange was not so sweet . . .

The log rollers kept at it for 17 days and by the end, they were still falling off.  You'd think they'd learn how to do it or quit.

Mothers and daughters, monster trucks, and water gun fun

Fine foods and Irish whiskey. The combination can produce some truly memorable behaviors, but fights and arrests are amazingly rare, given the crowds on the grounds. For the most crowded spot in New England, it is a remarkably safe place.

This year the Big E hired an artist to paint murals on the sides of the Coliseum. They also sold a sponsorship for one of the stages that left a horrible corporate logo behind the bands.It was a real challenge to photograph around, and I ended up getting some band shots posed in front of the murals instead, like these wonderful Mariachis:

We had Rhode Island's famous Beaver Brown band, whose sax player really knows how to step out and play

Ambrosia reprised their hits of the 80s. How Much I feel, Holding On to Yesterday and more

And the circus played on

Lettuce brought West Springfield some solid funk. Cool to see an instrumental act draw a good-sized crowd

Scott Stapp of Creed played some high energy rock and roll

Across the fairgrounds the 4H had a horse show:

Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. packed the front concert tent singing hits from the 5th Dimension and new material

Here's the whole group backstage before the last show. These folks have been singing soul music for fifty years. Hard to believe. Five time Grammy award winners, and they still hit all the notes right there on the Big E stage

That night, Naughty By Nature from East Orange, New Jersey took one stage while California's own Sugar Ray played the other. Both groups performed to packed houses

Some people showed up hours early to grab the good seats

Three hours later everyone was on their feet

Back in the 60s The Who sang The place is really jumping . . . In the blackout they dance right into the aisle . . .  as the doors fly open even the promoter smiles

Here are our promoters that night:

The next day was the Big E Collector Car Experience, which drew as big a crowd as the concerts.We had some famous names on stage but the real stars were the cars . . .

Elsewhere on the grounds we had more cars, hot rods, Sesame Street, and kids. Lots of kids

Readers of Look Me in the Eye may recall my time with Fat, a blues band from Ashfield, Massachusetts. Here were are at their show that night. What a cool thing, to be together again for a show 40 years later

As the fair went on we had Seraphina Violins, DJ Elyx, a finished butter sculpture, and sheep.

This fair was chartered to showcase New England agriculture. We can't forget the sheep. Or the llamas, cows, horses, goats, bunnies, chickens, minks, weasels, polar bears and all the other creatures on the grounds.  Well, maybe not polar bears.  But we do have bears.

They say this sculpture was carved from 3,200 pounds of butter deemed too old for sale as food.  But then they melted it for popcorn for the afterparty, and the crews ate it and felt fine.  Go figure . . .

There are signs all over the grounds. I shudder to contemplate the alternative to "real" ice.

Cures for lost people abound on the Big E fairgrounds

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police drew a crowd to the Coliseum while Collective Soul filled the arena out back

 lil TJAY arrived three hours late, but he still drew one of the biggest crowds of the fair. They just kept packing in . . .

Every day, and every night . . . rain or shine . . . there is action on the North American Midway

We had Carly Rae Jepsen and Mason Ramsey, a 13-year old YouTube star

We got a new ringmaster for the circus for the last days of the fair.

Artimus Pyle, the original Wild Man of Lynyrd Skynyrd played all the old music, and brought the lovely Seraphina Violins on stage for the second show . . .

Ned Niemic and his crew led the famous Hallamore Draft Horses every day. When it comes to horsemanship, with 50-plus years holding the reins, Ned is as good as they get.

Foreigner closed out this years fair, and for an encore, they brought out the Chicopee High School Choir

Thanks for stopping by. Look for me on the grounds at the 2020 Big E, September 18-October 4

I'm also JohnElderRobison on Instagram, @johnrobison on Twitter and JohnElderRobison on Facebook. 

John Elder Robison


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