Joseph Lawton

Joseph Lawton is a native of Central New York. He is a freelance photographer and teaches at Fordham University and Hunter College. Lawton participate din Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program in February 2000.
BirthplaceSyracuse, NY
CitizenshipUnited States
Cultural HeritageEuropean-American




The streets of New York City, San Salvador, El Salvador and the New York State Fair in Syracuse, New York are a few of the places Joe Lawton has photographed in the past year. Moving from familiar ground to strange territory has been the hallmark of Lawton's photographic activities for the past several years.

Lawton, a native SyracUnited Statesn who has lived in New York for the past seven years spent the month of August as Artist-in-Residence at Light Work. His primary concern during his residency was photographing the State Fair, a favorite subject of Lawton's for several years. Each year the state fair runs in Syracuse from the end of August through Labor Day. During that time the fairgrounds are transformed into a medium size town where divergent elements of the country and the city collide and rampant consumerism and showmanship abound. This unique festival has provided fodder for several Light Work artists-in-residence since 1976. Lawton's photographs are crafted with genuine skill and exhibit the keen understanding he has of his subjects. His many memorable picture of the Fair are bound to endure long after the last saUnited Statesge sandwich at Carmen Basilio's stand has been consumed.

Lawton currently teaches photography at Frodham University and is represented by DOT Picture Agency in New York City.

Jeffrey Hoone (c)1985

I have known Joe Lawton since high school. He was a grade ahead of me, which at the time seemed like a much greater distance than it really was. When that distance of one short year is measured in terms of having or not having a driver's license, or being able to drink legally in bars, (at the time, the drinking age was 18) the difference is magnified even more, defining perhaps for the first time one's notion of class and how it distinguishes and privileges one group over another. After high school, time collapses and differences in age matter less, until they disappear altogether into the complexities of a life lived through shared memories. I kept up with Joe over the years, and somehow we both found photography, pursued it as a shared passion, and held onto Syracuse and Central New York as a subject and state-of-mind to explore. Even though Joe has not lived in Syracuse for over 25 years, he has made an annual pilgrimage here since the early 1980s to photograph the New York State Fair. The Fair has had a permanent home in Syracuse since 1890 and has evolved into an event that separates residents of Central New York into two categories--those who wouldn't be caught dead attending and those who can't keep themselves away.

Roger Mertin once explained that the reason he chose to photograph certain things in a series--like basketball hoops or public libraries--was because it was a reason to stop the car and make a picture. Joe's annual trips to Syracuse to photograph at the Fair are guided by the same impulse; the Fair is like the force of gravity, pulling him back every August for a new experience at a cherished event that he would attend with or without his camera.

The process of putting together this catalogue and exhibition began with reviewing nearly 2,500 work prints that Joe began to make during his second residency at Light Work in January and February 2000. Working together to select the 40-50 pictures included in the project wasn't simply a matter of culling images, but a process of listening, looking, and fine-tuning the energy and vision that he had collected and created. Several times during the process I asked Joe what it was that he wanted his pictures to say about the Fair. There were few specifics that I could latch onto among his many answers, until one day he laid two pictures next to one another and said, 'I'm interested in relationships between people--not just a document about the Fair itself.' From that point on I was able to enter the multitude of pictures he had produced over the years because he was able to show me, instead of explain to me, what he meant.

The first event which later became known as the New York State Fair, and now the Great New York State Fair, was held in Syracuse in 1841 when the state legislature set aside '$8,000 for 'the promotion of agriculture and household manufactures in the State' through an annual fair.'1 After moving annually to different cities throughout the state, the Fair was established permanently in Syracuse in 1890. At the time, Syracuse had a population of 88,143. Today the 12-day event draws nearly one million visitors. The current-day Fair is still important to farmers where ribbons for prize livestock carry prestige and can add significantly to the market price of the winning sheep, cows, pigs, and even llamas. An extensive 4-H program at the Fair carefully cultivates the next generation of farmers, and the contests for best flowers, pies, vegetables, and the like are still an integral part of the Fair's attraction. The rides, games, and food concessions that compose the midway at the Fair are always the most crowded, and the majority of fairgoers spend their time and money in the midway making only cursory stops in the animal buildings. But overall the Fair still maintains the feel of a giant county fair where city meets country and a good time is guaranteed for the curious, the adventurous, or the just plain hungry.

I imagine that all who visit the Fair have a particular memory that defines their experience. The view of the midway at night from atop the double Ferris wheel, the 25-cent glasses of ice-cold chocolate milk in the Dairy Building, the life-size butter sculpture, the smell of fried dough, or the incessant chatter of barkers--hawking everything from Osterizers to antifogging eyeglass cleaner--are just a few of the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells that would attach themselves to any fairgoer's memory. Simply because they were made at the Fair, Joe's photographs could trigger any or all of those memories; but as much as the Fair is the physical location of his photographs, it is not the only subject of his pictures. With the Fair as backdrop--and the excuse to make new pictures every year--the body of work that he has produced over nearly 20 years is an essay about coming of age within the class and culture of mostly middle America. Joe understands the Fair because he loves it, and he has some understanding of the people who go there because he grew up around them. His pictures coax passion and knowledge, in very measured tones, from the chaos and confusion that defines the Fair as heaven for some and hell for others.

Cartier-Bresson, Frank, Friedlander, Levitt, DeCarava, Winogrand, and others laid down the rules for the visual choreography of life rushing by. Joe abides by those rules but makes his own game out of the triumphs and heartbreaks of relationships that we experience from the time we are able to remember until now--expressions that coat the Fair like a fine layer of dust at the end of the day. Teenagers and adolescense are the subject of many of Joe's photographs. Perhaps Syracuse triggers a special clarity of recollection about this time of intense and rapid change in one's life because his many images of teenagers at the Fair seem to describe perfectly adolescent angst and awakening. In the cover image, of a young girl riding the carousel, Joe describes an intangible fantasy so clearly that we can easily imagine behind her closed eyes she is casting herself as a princess in her carriage on the way to an enchanted evening. In another image (page 23), a young boy and girl, possibly on their first date, sit close together on a gondola ride that takes passengers on a slow overhead survey the length of the midway and back. In the picture the ride is just bringing them back to the ground; we get the sense from this single frame that we have been witness to all of their quiet, bashful conversation which Joe catches in the fullness of their gestures and expressions.

In other photographs he brings us through the life cycles of relationships including dating, marriage, and raising families with a similar sense of pitch and timing. In each image he seems always to bring out strong sentiment without being sentimental and to cast a critical eye without being judgmental. While looking out through the viewfinder into the crowd of strangers Joe is also looking back and recognizing something about himself--the place he is from and the experiences he knows and remembers.

The Fair, like most things in life, will bestow memorable rewards on those who are curious enough to step out of their own lives and risk investigating the experiences of others. In the opening photograph (page 5), he captures just such an exchange where a man in a baseball cap and a loud plaid shirt bends slightly forward, obviously asking another man, who is in the middle of a sheep-shearing demonstration, something about what he is doing. We can surely imagine the questions he asks and also feel quite confident that one man came away from the exchange more enlightened and the other one more exhausted. The man in the baseball cap is Joe's father, and on the farm they might call that not falling far from the tree. The last photograph on the inside of the catalogue (page 48), taken at night, manages to isolate a woman holding a sleeping baby while walking down the midway among the throng. The woman and child are Joe's wife and son, making his family a fitting bookend to a project that explores the complexities of relationships simply by looking at them close to home.

Jeffrey Hoone 2000

1. The New York State Fair unofficial website (


Joe Lawton fits squarely in the tradition of the great street photographers, Walker Evans, Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, and Garry Winogrand. His subject is the world of the street; his subject is the human condition. But these photographs also take a cue from theater and classical sculpture. 

Ancient Roman, Egyptian, and Assyrian friezes immediately arrest the viewer with the isolation of the figures. The emphasis is on gesture, animated by the play of natural light across the planes of the faces and figures. Each character in relief exists independently and is simultaneously described in direct relationship to the others. A sense of place comes from the background sketches of buildings, mountains, and trees. The stage is simple. Their general subject is ritual and the procession of humanity. These friezes are full of good naturedness and humorous details. Undoubtedly they are observed from life for the figures have the vitality and personality of individuals. 

For the past twenty years, I knew that when the month of August arrived, Joe would be in Upstate New York, immersed in the maze of the State Fair, his muse, a place of crowds and a paradise for one whose passion is to be an observer and a voyeur of humanity. These crowds, distracted by the myriad activities, seem completely unaware of this tall man, camera to eye, waltzing, weaving, and hovering around his subjects. He has found a world there, and he describes it poignantly. It is a complex one which catches the flux of life in tableaux. At the same time, he throws his net around a physically larger world, one that includes, in this group of photographs, India and China, places where all aspects of life spill out onto the street, and where he can be alone in the crowd, watching. 

These five photographs contain expressions of everyday life. Each image is a stage; their drama comes from the complexity within each frame—how figures move in relationship to each other and how they are essentially, inordinately connected. One photograph uses classical drapery to isolate figures; others use walls. Curbs, hay, steps, and ledges delineate the borders of the stages, focusing our attention. 

In the photograph of the young performers (page 19), our eyes move first to the hats, to the rhythm they set up across the frame. Each child and adult anticipates, independently, the upcoming event. Arms clasp, fingers twist, faces tilt every which way in contemplation, and one rivets our attention by gazing directly into the lens. 

In the haystack photograph (page 20), on the lower right side of the frame, a foot tapping begins the narrative . It takes us to a smiling woman, speaking to a mother holding a baby, whose hair is being combed by another child. The soda-drinking boy above the crouching one, formally connects to the boys on the second and third tier haystack, which in turn bring us to the boys sitting on the truck, one looking at us. It's as gracefully choreographed as an elaborate ballet. 

In the last photograph, the ideograms tell us that it's China, yet nowhere in particular. The time must be recent, as evidenced by the plastic thongs, patterned umbrellas, a wristwatch, but it's also caught somewhere in the past. A suave young man on the right is deep in conversation with the
figure below. A second cool one, catches our gaze. Another man sells hats, his thin bare ribcage glistening. Women gossip, mouths open. Men smoke, cheeks drawn, each pulling in his own thoughts. A weary grandmother stands with her grandchildren clutching her. Others are alone, lost in thought. A procession of humanity. To take one figure out of the seventeen would topple the schema. 

In his frieze-like style, Joe Lawton offers us narratives drawn from his own theater, where time is suspended for a moment, where we have a privileged seat and can watch the performance in awe.  

Lois Conner 

Joseph Lawton lives in New York City and participated in Light Work’s Artist-in-Residence program, for the second time, in February 2000.

Lois Conner lives in New York City and is a freelance photographer.