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Kelly McCann photo/ Kirkwood native Virginia Lee Hunter traveled across the country with various carnivals to capture the spirit of Americana through the lives of carnies. Hunter's book of images, "Carny: Americana on the Midway," will be available for purchase in June.

Photographer captures American carnival life Virginia Lee Hunter fascinated by its culture

By Kelly McCann

Tuesday, May 1, 2007 4:04 PM CDT


Virginia Lee Hunter never anticipated a childhood memory of going to the carnival would evolve into a cross-country exploration of the elusive world of carnival life.


As an editorial photographer, Hunter used the carnival midway as a backdrop for her homage to the carnival culture. On Friday, May 4, Hunter will introduce her book of images, "Carny: Americana on the Midway," at a reception at Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave. in St. Louis' Central West End. The reception will include an exhibition, book reading and signing.


The Kirkwood native was inspired to delve into this portrait of Americana after a trip to a carnival in Los Angeles triggered memories of attending carnivals at North Junior High School and Kirkwood High School. Hunter recalls running wild without parent supervision, hunting for boys and running from others and just being with friends.

She also remembers the "carnies," or carnival workers, getting a bad rap. When she was 13, a 20-something carny whistled at Hunter, marking the first time someone acknowledged her as being sexy.


Working as an editorial photographer for various publications in Los Angeles, Hunter went out on the road for up to six weeks at a time during a 10-year period to capture images for her independent project. She moved back to Kirkwood just a few months ago.


In August 1996, after a relationship ended in a tough break-up, Hunter got rid of her Los Angeles apartment, sent her dogs to live with a friend, packed up her car and never looked back.



"I was terrified," she said. "Every day I was at a new carnival, I would sit in my car, trembling. I hate rejection, and I didn't know how they would react or respond to me."






2 cont, Carny:Americana on the Midway



Hunter says she was seeking the answer to the question, "Who are carnies?" during her travels with carnivals through California, Nebraska, Wyoming and Appalachia. Initially, she walked up and down the midway, or main drag, of a carnival taking photos and responding to any inquiries about her presence.


"Once they figured out I wasn't an FBI agent or social services, and that I sincerely wanted to photograph carnival life, they invited me to have a beer or coffee," Hunter said.


One of her most endearing encounters was with Grandpa Hack, an older man who started working in carnivals in 1930. Hack spoke to Hunter about the evolution of carnivals, including carnivals traveling by train before trucks. In an excerpt from Hunter's book, Hack says, "I don't want to get out of the business. If it gets into your blood, it stays there. I do get out the business in the wintertime. I go fishing."


Grandpa Hack only left the business when he passed away about five years ago.


"Carnies are hard, hard workers," Hunter said. "It's definitely a lifestyle where everyone is a part of a family working together as a unit. It's a traveling city. You feel like you are part of something."


Hunter sought out typical carnival workers such as the single male, ride jock or the young couple trying to make it, in hopes of breaking the stereotypes. Along the way, she met the disenfranchised, loners and renegades, all of which she says make up the American spirit.


Hunter features Melinda, a 29-year-old who "went from guy to guy" or in carny terms, an "opossum belly queen," who was lost after running away from home at age 11.


"Lots of time the carnival embraces people and always gives a chance to better their lives," Hunter said. "It's a place of salvation like a big-breasted mama embracing them."


Hunter traveled alone, sleeping in motel rooms, camping and occasionally crashing on the sofa of a carny. When she was low on cash, Hunter worked with the carnival, running the dart game or ball toss.


"They treat you differently and respect you more after working in the carnival," Hunter said.


In 2005, Hunter teamed with Canadian filmmaker Allison Murray to create a film documentary titled "Carny." The documentary is scheduled to air at the end of the year or beginning of next year on The Sundance Channel, TV Ontario in Canada and Channel 4 in the United Kingdom.


"Carnies travel from place to place each week bringing smiles, laughter and memories to small towns across America," Hunter said.



Virginia Lee Hunter photo/ Through vivid images of the colorful midway,     

Virginia Lee Hunter opens a door to the carnival life.


Virginia Lee Hunter photo/ In 1996, Carnival workers

capture the American spirit with their hard work, as

Virginia Lee Hunter found out.