REVIEW: Conventional Wisdom by Arthur Drooker
By Erica McGrath
"The conventioneers have each other and that’s all they need. An attendee I met at the taxidermist convention expressed it best. 'This isn’t a convention,' he said. 'It’s a family reunion'”. For the past three years Arthur Drooker has been traveling across America photographing a seemingly broad topic: conventions. However Drooker has dove into something deeper in the world of conventions, he seeks out unlikely and interest specific groups that are less broad in their appeal. These esoteric groups consist of people cosplaying as different characters, people, animals, fetishes, you name it and there is probably a convention for it. To name a few of these groups; The Society of Lincoln Impersonators, My Little Pony loving “Bronies”, The International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, and the World Clown Association (WCA). What may have started out as a general curiosity of such quirky gatherings for Drooker has blossomed into something much more substantial for both him and his photography. Having a newfound respect and understanding for these convention goers Drooker has discovered that conventions are sanctuaries for the individuals who attend them. In his latest publication Conventional Wisdom Drooker’s photographs document all the wild and weird antics that occur at these interest specific conventions while still conveying the overwhelming sense of family shared between these tight knit communities. No matter how diverse apart in subject matter these specific conventions may be, Drooker discovered that all conventions share one thing: “Regardless of what they’re about, where they’re held, or who attends them, all conventions satisfy a basic human urge: the longing for belonging”.
In Conventional Wisdom Arthur Drooker notes that while attending conventions the outside world ceases to exist. His interest in conventions stemmed from their appeal as, “visual treasures” but after attending so many over the past three years he has discovered more than just their aesthetic appeal, “To me, they’re unique expressions of community, culture and connection”. These conventions are met with much anticipation because of their yearly occurrence, and are places where people can let a dominant part of who they feel they are unfold freely amongst others who share the same unique interests. Whereas they may feel like outsiders in their daily lives, at conventions they belong to the inside group. Drooker’s photographs of the conventions range from intimate portraits, to humorous group shots, to documentary style pictures. The photographs of the attendees are truly unlike any others and easy to love. Where else can you see 115 people dressed as Abraham Lincoln in one room together? Or a group of mermaids and mermen swim together in a hotel pool? Drooker is not photographing to mock the convention goers but rather to understand them and their unique interests more intimately. His ultimate goal being to show that conventions are a place where people can join together in comfort and harmony without feeling out of place. Drooker’s observations of conventions have had him conclude that, “While Americans consider themselves rugged individualists, they’re truly happiest when they are with their own kind and accepted for who they really are".
Each convention series is prefaced with a brief commentary written by Drooker summarizing his experience at the different conventions. Although at first seen as an outsider, as an “alien passing through”, as Drooker started to be a regular at conventions he began to feel the electrifying charge given off by being part of a convention, “I found myself returning to these conventions not only needing to do additional photography but also wanting to renew acquaintances and to feel that charge again”. What is most compelling to me about the conventions is the underlying irony to them that Drooker captures; convention goers feel most comfortable being themselves while attending conventions dressed as someone foreign to their actual self. Whether it be a mythical creature like a mermaid, a human sized animal, a historical figure like Abraham Lincoln, or a war hero it is in these all encompassing masks, in someone else’s skin, that convention goers feel the most comfortable and free in their own skin. It is an interesting contradiction and in Conventional Wisdom, the reasoning behind this is perhaps best said by Trish Manuel; or as her alter personality as the clown Priscilla Mooseberger, “When we all get together, it’s really powerful. We’re clowns so we get each other. We feel welcome. We have a place and isn’t that what everybody wants?”