At the Demolition Derby and County Fair in Upstate New York

At the Demolition Derby and County Fair in Upstate New York
Over the last two decades, photographer team Guzman have attended the fair with cameras in hand to crafting a portrait of community.

For nearly two centuries, the Columbia County Fair has lay nestled in the fields of Chatham, a small town in New York’s verdant Hudson Valley. The annual celebration of the harvest dates back to October 12, 1841, with livestock and agricultural exhibits from regional farmers along with a selection of dry goods.

Over the years, the fairground has expanded to meet demand, becoming one of the most anticipated events of the year. The fair now includes an antique and monster tractor pull, midway replete with rides and games, and main stage showcasing classic rock cover bands. Attendees can visit Heritage Hall for old fashioned classics like handmade candles, ironwork, and quilts or catch the Master of the Chainsaw in action as sculptors display their high voltage handiwork.

But the real highlight of the fair is the Demolition Derby, held on Thursday and Friday nights every year. As the sky darkens, the crowds come alive, taking their place in the stands and gathering around the track, assessing this year’s contenders with the practiced eye of one who has never missed a race.

Local residents Constance Hansen and Russell Peacock, the husband and wife photography team better known as Guzman, were immediately taken with the exquisite care that went into derby cars that were destined to out with a bang in this most American of sports.

Over the past two decades, they have attended the fair with camera in hand, crafting a portrait of community for The Anatomy Lesson. The series takes its title from a 1632 painting by Dutch master Rembrandt, who depicted a scene of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp and a group of doctors gathered eagerly around a corpse. Hansen and Peacock recognized that same look of fascination and curiosity in the eyes of children and adults gathered around the Derby contenders.

“The cars are really beautiful and everyone is very quiet and looking at them lovingly,” Hansen says. “You see how much care and consideration they put into them. They write things like ‘War Wagon’. It’s a culture I’m not familiar with and I feel like I’m in another country.”

Amidst the 1776 marching band re-enactors, MAGA enthusiasts, and industrial size plush toys, Hansen and Peacock felt an energy they couldn’t find anywhere else. The high-octane destruction on the track was chaos and catharsis incarnate.

“During the race, they are repairing their cars so they can make it run and get back in the game and bash the shit out of each other,” Hansen says. “Sparks are flying and people are running back and forth with all kinds of equipment. The crowds are right on top of the track and over time they had more and more safety measures like a barrier between the crowd and the pit.”

The Demolition Derby is a fight to the finish, where only one driver will claim the title in a sport that welcomes women to battle it out beside the men. It’s just the kind of story Guzman does best.

Columbia County Fair will be held August 28-September 2, 2024, in Chatham, New York.

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