In the 1970s photographer Roger Vail began taking long exposure photographs of thrill rides: Ferris wheels, tilt-a-whirls, round ups. His images extend photography “decisive moment” into abstraction. Images in the exhibition, Carnival: Roger Vailtrace the kaleidoscopic light play of carnival rides in full motion. We asked Roger Vail about his photographic investigations on view at the Joseph Bellows Gallery through August 22.
You described your photographs as images painted with light, would you elaborate?
My education in photography at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago was heavily influenced by Bauhaus ideas. We worked a lot with forms of light and movement and were encouraged to explore photography as if there were no rules. My work with the carnival rides came out of that experience.
How did your interest in photographing carnivals come about?
I had been photographing at night for some time with a large format camera on a tripod and using time exposures. My initial interest was in hand-painted carnival facades. One evening I decided to try shooting a Ferris wheel. I had no idea what it would look like in motion. When I saw the film I was floored by what was there. This was Spinning Carnival Ride #1, 1971, and that led to my continued interest in these images.
You’ve said that carnival rides as “the best use of machinery ever invented” yet you use another machine to fully express their potential. Why use a static medium like the photograph to express the wild playfulness of carnival rides?
You’re right. I probably should have said “one of the best.” And you’re right as well that the static medium of photography allows us to stop time and motion to see things we don’t ordinarily see or are impossible to see. There really haven’t been any particular challenges in making these photographs. They were lots of fun to make and I hope this is apparent when the viewer sees them.