Faerie at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, Irwindale, California

I went to my first Renaissance Faire last weekend. To be specific, the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, in Irwindale, California. I had never been to a Renaissance Faire, and frankly even typing the words “Renaissance Faire” makes me just the wee-est bit embarrassed for myself. But just a bit.

Now, I have been to Comic-Con in San Diego, and a Dark Shadows Festival in Burbank, so I have absolutely no room to cast superior glances in the direction of those whose geekly preferences run toward breeches and doublets and jerkins and corsets, the codpiece and bodice and surcoat and simarre rather than white plastic stormtrooper helmets, bright red tights, or false fangs. Bell-toed shoes and Starfleet insignia are all of a piece, really, part of a great panspectrum of nerdishness of which I am an appreciative photographic bystander and, yes, even celebrant.

That, of course, is really the point here, because I’m supposed to be writing about photography and not the relative merits of science fiction vs fantasy, or whether ’tis nobler in the mind to engage in historical reenactment or dress up like a Wookie. So on to the photography.

The nice thing about events like the Renaissance Pleasure Faire is that there are really, really interesting-looking people, who have gone way out of their way to embody creative and visually arresting personas and who—and this is the part that’s really great for a shameless voyeur like myself—are delighted to be photographed.

Group of costumed "Italian Nobles" at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire in Irwindale, California

In nature photography, I have to creep around in the poison oak and brave swarms of nasty little flying things in order to take an interesting photo of a bird or an animal. I love nature photography, of course, and am a constant watcher-for-birds. (I do not claim to be a “birder,” which implies actual substantive knowledge of the things being photographed, as opposed to my approach of “ooh that’s pretty I’ll take its picture.” My grandmother called herself a “birdwatcher,” which I suppose is what birders were before they got all sophisticated and cool.)

blue jay on a fence rail

Stellar's Jay near Palm Springs, California

I am also someone who is fond of “street photography” (which is sometimes referred to as “taking pictures of people who are just out minding their own business”), although doing it sometimes makes me feel just a wee bit creepy (and someday I’ll tell you all about how Flickr slapped my wrist for taking photos of people on the street who happened to be college-age surferboys). Anyway, I appear to have digressed, and will discuss my creepiness at a later time.

The thing about events like the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, though, is that the participants are generally more than happy to show off the months of excrutiatingly detailed work they’ve put into their period-correct clothing, or the hours and hours they’ve spent making-up themselves to look like mystical faeries. This is wonderful for a voyeuristic photographer, since no skulking about is required. I do ask, of course: I join merrily in the total-immersion play-mode embraced at the faire; I address the subjects as m’lord and m’lady, wax ribald at the bar-wench, and go gently with the faerie folk frolicking in shade, away from the heat of the sun.

"And is not my hostess of the tavern a most sweet wench?"

And oh my the sun! I suppose it comes to no one’s surprise that the mid-morning sun in Southern California is about as good as it gets, lighting-wise: glowing (but not over-contrasty) surfaces; crisp, sharp shadows; perfectly-lit colors that are bright and vivid without tipping into supersaturation. These photos went through Photoshop only for cropping; other than that, what you see is pretty much how it came straight from the camera. I like the sun.

Parasols in the sun

It’s a wonderful opportunity to practice the capturing of moods and moments, of trying to transcend snapshottery and achieve more of a personal vision, with subject matter that’s way out of the ordinary. Technically, I found myself tending away from full-figures, photos designed to show off the entire costume (although those are certainly interesting).

Rather, I was tending more toward the faces of the people inhabiting those costumes. The close-ups still show off the workmanship in the fabrics and make-up, but rich and compelling as the clothing may be, the fact that these people, in this century, chose to not only spend months working on their clothes, but to wear them out and about in public, in a brightly sunlit 90-degree day, is even richer and more compelling a story, to my mind. These are exceptional individuals, aristocrat and wench and woodland sprite alike.

For a moment these people inhabit another time and place: a Europe with neither electricity nor the Euro, shivering in the little ice age of the Sixteenth century where all that leather and layering made sense, rather than a superheated park at the base of the Sierra Madres; a world woefully without antibiotics or equal rights or economic opportunity or basic personal hygiene; a world bullied and abused by elites established by birth; a world wallowing in superstition and illiteracy and ignorance; a world scratching and coughing with uncountable nasty diseases and assorted discomforts of both flesh and spirit.

But for a warm weekend or two, it’s a world basking in the warm and embracing sunshine of Gloriana the Faerie Queene, a flat young planet nestled in concentric crystalline spheres, a polite and playful Renaissance that’s better than it was, a Pleasure Faire most favourably attended.

And I get to take ye olde pictures of it.

"About the maypole new dance we, with glee and merryement abound!"