These portraits were made in a portable studio that was hauled
from fair to fair between 1976 and 1980. The studio was complete
with darkroom and a shooting stage and it took a crew of three
to run it: a shooter (me), a front person to handle customers
and a darkroom person to develop and print the 4x5 inch negative.
The entire process, when going smoothly, took about fifteen minutes.
The studio, a weatherbeaten structure of wood and steel, was mounted
on a trailer and covered with peeling orange, black and white
paint. At a fair we disguised it as best we could with some of
our most glamorous photos--smiling faces and beauty queens. The
shooting stage was just inside a heavy orange curtain which only
partially blocked out the roar of the fair. A 4x5 wood box Burke
& James camera was mounted on a rigid turret, its 135 mm lens
so old and scratched that our pictures came out happily softened,
a quality I could never achieve with a newer lens. For lighting
we installed three Honeywell strobes around the room and a flood
lamp above the camera. We painted the background neutral gray.
Our only props were three stools and a table for infants.
Because our prices were so reasonable, we often had lines of customers
that lasted from ten in the morning to midnight. To give you an
idea of our volume: on a busy day in Pleasanton, I shot over 450
portraits, averaging three people per print, meaning 1350 mostly
Customers generally posed themselves. I directed them to the camera
and tried not to interfere with their moods, unless a mother insisted
that I make her kid smile. Most of the time I only clicked the
Packard shutter once, provided the subject sat sill. The shutter
speed was 1/30 of a second, which doesnt stop even a slow motion.
I spent a couple minutes with each customer, but large families
and fussy babies took longer. After I exposed the negative, the
customer paid and I sent the film holder back to the darkroom
with a color coded ticket, which told the crew what size and quantity
The darkroom stood behind the shooting area, through a door stained
with photo chemicals. It was divided into two rooms with space
for four people, though we usually worked two at a time. On one
side was the small negative processing room secured from the printing
area by a black curtain. The negative was processed in the normal
manner, although we heated our developer to 92 degrees F and cooked
the Ilford film for a brief forty seconds. Ilford was the only
film we could work with; the others disintegrated at the high
The developed and fixed negative was then shoved through a small
opening to the print room where a second person dipped it into
a solution of Photo-Flo and squeegeed off the excess The still-damp
negative then went to one of our two Omega D-II enlargers, one
for wallet-sized prints and the other for larger sizes up to 16x20
Since there was not time for guess work the exposure was determined
by a densitometer. Once exposed, the paper was placed face-up
in a Kreomatic processor which developed, fixed, washed and dried
the print in about four minutes. This machine was a luxury we
only recently acquired. Before, we had four messy, open tanks
which explains why our trailers frame was so eroded by acid and
The entire procedure, from negative to finished print went smoothly
most of the time. Only were were were at our busiest did blunders
from inexperienced help, power blackouts, electrical shorts, contaminated
chemicals, scratched negatives and a host of other disasters seem
We slept in cheap motels, on cots in campgrounds, in our cars,
and often in the back of a 1966 Dodge stock truck. Inside its
aluminum shell we installed three bunks, two closets, a refrigerator
and an air-conditioner. Chemicals and photographic paper were
stored separately up front. We parked the truck on the fairgrounds
near the studio. It was convenient to sleep within walking distance,
particularly after a fourteen-hour workday.
My association with Harold Foote, the owner of the studio, began
in 1971 when I went to the Pleasanton fair with two schoolmates
in search of summer work. Foote had just pulled his studio onto
the grounds and was busy setting up. He asked if any of us had
photography experience. He noticed my slender frame and said,
You fit in the darkroom. A dollar-sixty-five and the job is yours.
The darkroom then was a dingy closet and there my career began.
Two weeks later when the fair ended, Harold asked if I wanted
to go on the road as a darkroom person and I agreed. Three years
later I moved out of the darkroom and became a shooter and began
this collection in 1976.
During those years with Foote I shoot nearly 60,000 portraits.
Of those I saved 700 negatives, some of which are shown here.
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