Inspiration, like water, flows downhill. Some years ago I began depicting faces in stained glass — using only the glass itself, without painted-on features. Technically I’m not great with glass, but I made some progress. Perhaps I’ll take it up again someday.

If you know anything about glass, you know that it only cuts naturally in certain directions. You can push the limits, even go beyond them with the right tech. But aping the smooth transitions of the human face with pieces of glass and copper foil? Not so easy.

Fortunately, I had a book to show me the way. Back in the ’70s, before digital photography, each summer a traveling photo studio followed the county fair circuit in the western states. The studio offered fast, cheap large-format black and white portraits of you, your family, your buds, or whoever you cared to pile into the box-like studio-on-wheels. I remember seeing it at the local fairs back when I was a teen.

This wasn’t what you’d call subtle photography; the studio crew shot, cooked, printed, dried and delivered in 15 minutes. It needed high contrast, powerful can’t-fail lighting. But the product was portraiture that working people could afford. They could dictate how they wanted to be seen, like the patrons of posh society photographers .

After a while the portrait shooter, Mikkel Aaland, realized that he had something special and began asking customers for photo releases when he got a particularly striking portrait. Eventually, he published a book called County Fair Portraits that shows off the most affecting portraits. If you follow the link, you’ll see some of them.

All those very human faces etched with lines in high relief: they showed me exactly how to cut the glass. They gave me some ideas about shadowing, too. The glass panel above was inspired by a portrait of an Apache woman taken at the Arizona state fair. Again, follow the link and you’ll see the original image.

I got three glass panels out of that book. Below find the last one I cut, a qualified success; my attempt at glass painting to indicate shadow eventually went wrong; the paint deteriorated.



The original photo was of a 80-year-old cattle rancher, a cheerful man. I gave him a backdrop of blue sky filled with spectral cows who might have nuanced feelings, if cows can, about his long career. I choose this photo in part because it much resembled my mother’s second husband — an outwardly friendly and generous man with a well-concealed dark side.

All this became possible because Aaland thought to keep his negatives.  County Fair Portraits was not a huge success — I got my copy, remaindered, 30 years ago — but I keep finding people who know it and were inspired by it. Inspiration runs downhill, brings nourishment to others’ imaginations. They, in turn, may inspire others.

The Internet is full of photos, but Aaland provides context and background — a larger portrait of a time and place and social strata, the people who lived in it, and how they chose to see themselves. You can lose yourself in it. The book sits on my shelf and inspires, to this day. I pick it up almost every time that I notice it.

6 thoughts on “Inspiration

  1. LK

    The high-priced version of your county fair photographer is Richard Avedon. Some of his photos of “real people” have that same gritty down-to-earth feeling. Another book of “real people” photography is “Suburbia” by Bill Owens. Some of the photos are cringe-worthy, but these folks are being themselves and I can definitely identify with some of them. There’s also a really interesting book – name of it escapes me – of found-photographs. Lots of anonymous people standing awkwardly in front of things, grinning and being themselves. I just gave CC a small book containing nothing but photographs of young women standing on lawns in front of houses. Apparently, it’s a thing. Who knew?

    1. admin Post author

      There are so many “things” out there one can’t know them all.

      I grew up with people like this, went to several of the same county fairs, knew carnies. Aaland wasn’t trying to make people cringe, one reason I like the book so much.

      I do have at least one found-photograph book around somewhere, from people who went door to door and asked to go through folks’ old photos. And another from a guy who went through zillions of negatives shot by professional photographers out of the studio, in the surroundings that the client wanted. All have the same ethic of showing the subjects as _they_ wanted to be shown, for better or worse, interesting or touching or appalling. Then the Internet came by, and you don’t see so many books like that anymore because people can just go to Flickr and search for anything. Which is a shame, because books like that can be a package that makes a real point and has real themes.

      The funny thing about Aaland’s book: I used to live in an apartment building in San Francisco with one of the people in that book. Took me forever to realize why I kept looking at her; she’d let her hair go white. Couldn’t have been anyone else: unmistakeable face.

    1. admin Post author

      She would not take kindly on that, Forrest ;-). No, it’s from the book I mentioned: an Apache woman.

      Happy New Year to you, too. I just checked your blog a couple of days ago for the first time in month; all those adventures. Are you setting out to sea again soon?

      1. Forrest

        I probably will sail only once a year or so, if that often. Mostly I discovered just how much I enjoy a long, hot shower. The airplane side of me finally won the battle for my future attention; I recently purchased a 1950 Bellanca 14-19 Cruisemaster. You may know it because of it’s unique triple tail. It will take most of the rest of my natural lifespan to restore because almost every part of it is either rusted, bent broken or missing! The good part is I’ll be spending all that time at the airport in the company of other pilots. Can’t think of a better way to get old.

        1. admin Post author

          Forrest, I just saw the Bellanca online, and it’s a sweet-looking thing. Wooden wing structure? Fabric? That’ll keep you busy. And I’m just really pleased that it’ll keep you busy in the company of people that you enjoy.


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