Unboxing Kevin O’Meara’s ‘Second Best’

For Second Best, Kevin O’Meara attended the Minnesota State Fair—the second best state fair in the country, after Texas—every day of its 2015 run: August 26-September 7. I admire the committment and drive, but I don’t envy the task.

Mom used to pull me out of school for “cultural enrichment day” to visit the State Fair of Texas every year through grade, middle and high school, and I visited the Illinois State Fair (a pale shadow of the Texas one) a few times when I lived in Springfield, so most of the people, places and things in Second Best are old friends. Bored, bourgie suburban folks, FFA dropouts, county ag extension agents and their acolytes, packs of teenage thugs and princesses, everything I’d expect from the Best State Fair is also in Second Best.

I took a photowalk through the State Fair with Dallas Photo Walk MeetUp group several years ago, but never shared it on the blog here, or can’t find it now, and so, at the risk of making this more about me than O’Meara’s excellent book, here is a brief selection. I was still shooting digital at the time, not that it matters, but that explains the saturated color and sharpness (and the ~600 pictures I had to sift through)…

No, my snapshots from a half day photowalk at the Best State Fair have nothing on O’Meara’s, though I had fun looking through them again and selected a few this time that didn’t make the cut the first time around, judging by the star ratings I left on some of them. From his two weeks at the second best, O’Meara captured the essence of the second best state fair,  and if I went back to the Best State Fair today, after flipping through Second Best a few dozen times, and with 6 years of shooting under my belt, God willing, I’d shoot differently than I did the first time, try to capture something more essential about the Best State Fair, but I still wouldn’t be able to pull off anything like Second Best. Alhamdulillah, I have a day job and family responsibilities, and 3 weeks in Fair Park, in September/October, isn’t something I could see myself doing. There are reasons I’ve not been to the Best State Fair even one day since 2011, let alone enough times to capture its essence the way O’Meara has in Second Best.

The photographs in Second Best feel somehow timeless. The black & white is part of it, but the subject, the animals, people, buildings, and pretty much everything could’ve been shot at any state fair, at pretty much any time in the late 20th or early 21st centuries, probably earlier, and probably for many state fairs in the future. Kids hanging out, animals being born, people moving around listlessly or posing, smiling, showing off ribbons, all the state-fairy stuff. I keep thinking that he missed something, and then I go and look, and sure enough, there are 3-5 pictures of that very thing: it’s all in there.

Matt Day has a great interview with Kevin on The Shoot podcast. They have a wide ranging conversation, with some good discussion of what it takes to be a working photographer (I’m so thankful for my day job, Alhamdulillah!), gear (it doesn’t matter, just shoot), ethics in photographing cultures (participate: you’ll get better stories), and various other things. Check it out.

Concept
Content
Design

The concept of shooting the second best state fair and making a little photobook from it shows commitment and drive, and O’Meara’s process, stamina, and determination is inspiring. The content is near timeless. There are a few jokes interspersed, but the book doesn’t rely or rest on jokes alone. As a softcover book, it’s well printed and feels good in hand. Overall, I’d give it 4 full stars.

I’m glad I snagged a copy when I could: from what I can tell, Second Best is sold out everywhere, but if you find one of them somewhere, pick up a copy: it’s great!

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