In his portraits of circus performers, German photographer August Sander chose not to focus on acrobatic feats or stunning performances.
Instead, it presented circus workers as citizens, shown in their homes and with a family of their choosing. Sander’s circus photographs, taken from 1926 to 1932, are from 20th century people—a multi-decade project representing hundreds of his compatriots according to social strata and profession. The circus photographs come from the section entitled “Traveling People”, which contrasts directly with the first group in its series, the farmers or those rooted in the earth; instead, these subjects are categorized by mobility and perceived uprooting.
In his portrait of the workers of Barum’s American Caravan Menagerie (different from Barnum’s in America), Sander features a group of artists on a break gathered around a phonograph on the steps of their vehicle. Bringing together people of color, gypsy costumes and an allusion to jazz, the composition presents a decided alternative to what was then considered traditional German culture. As outsiders, they find themselves in possible conflict or opposition to middle-class culture, the paragon of belonging; yet in Sander’s group portrait, the participants exude great humanity in a community they themselves have formed.
Constantly in motion, and often parked on the outskirts of the city, the circuses of the 20th century symbolized a culture and community on the literal periphery of society, defining the outer limits of middle-class customs and norms, as shown in this portrait of a young girl in a traveling trailer – half in and half out – which suggests the liminal space these circus performers occupied in German society.
These two iconic, newly acquired prints by August Sander inspired us to think about the place circuses held in 1920s and 30s photography. As a space of thrills and daring exploits, it appealed to childlike wonder; it also contained overtones of what was then considered primitive and exotic, with ethnographic shows and curious side exhibits. Revealing costumes alluded to a looser morality, and acrobatic feats or displays of force evoked physical freedom and transformation. For all these reasons, many photographers have been drawn to the visual possibilities of the circus, and many have turned their cameras to the scenery or the action: the geometric shapes of the tent, the bodies hovering on trapezes or tightropes above, and attention disguises.
Umbo (Otto Umbehr)
Umbo operated a photography studio in 1927, publishing his photographs widely in magazines and including them in major “new photography” exhibitions over the following years. He took this photograph as part of a series on circus artists for an article entitled “Limbering Up”, published in the Munich Picture Press in February 1930 (this one was not included). He continued many stories about circus and cabaret performers in Weimar-era Berlin, drawn to their bohemian lifestyle and camaraderie. Here, the characters seem suspended in animation, turning the world upside down as they seem to occupy one that obeys physical laws different from ours.
In an image apparently taken from the dizzying heights of a trapeze, Umbo also photographed the Flying Codonas – Alfred and Lalo Codona, among the greatest circus acrobats of the first half of the 20th century – above the dazzled customers at the table. A performer is completely detached from any support, flying dangerously with abandon. With the photographer modeling almost as much risk as the trapeze artists, photography becomes an exhilarating interpretation of physical feat.
Some artists have found a canvas for geometric abstraction, as Eli Lotar did with this view of a rope ladder swinging against the panels of a circus tent. Best known for his experimental films and bizarre photographic contributions to Surrealist publication Documents, Lotar may have made this image during a break in a circus act. In February 1932, New York collector and gallery owner Julien Levy, who is generally credited with introducing Surrealism to an American audience, included Lotar’s work in an influential exhibition called “Modern European Photography”.
Ilse Bing left her hometown of Frankfurt and her training as an art historian to become a photographer in Paris, where she spent most of the 1930s. really become myself”. She began supplying the burgeoning French photographic press with fashion and social documentary photography, becoming so proficient with her lightweight, discreet camera that she eventually became the “Queen of the Leica”. In the spring of 1936, she spent several months in New York, taking pictures of various subjects, including a performance by the Ringling Bros. and from Barnum & Bailey Circus to Madison Square Garden. His photographs focus on the performers isolated above the audience, absorbed in a world that seems to exist outside of gravity.
Photographers in the United States shared the impetus of their European counterparts and also documented the circus performances that sprung up across the country. William Rittase photographed an act of extraordinary balancing, adding to the tension by composing the figures into a diagonal grid of tightrope and balancing poles. Commercial photographer who publishes regularly in Fortune magazine, Rittase produced a children’s book of circus photographs. But his work had a wider artistic appeal, catching the attention of gallery owner Julien Levy as well as the organizers of the 1932 Museum of Modern Art exhibition, Murals by American painters and photographers. Perhaps the subject of the circus served as a bridge between popular entertainment and avant-garde possibility.
Julien Levy also exhibited the work of Luc Swank, who photographed for popular American magazines and showed his work in museums and galleries. A group of his circus photographs were exhibited in 1934 at Delphic Studios in New York; a critic writing about the exhibition for vanity lounge writes that “Luke Swank does for photography what Flaubert did for the novel”. Swank would come to know the circus well: his son, Harry, went to work for one at the age of 16, perhaps against his father’s wishes, and then spent the rest of his life with the family. of the circus. In Swank’s photographs, the performers beam and smile at the camera, continuing their performance in front of a one-person audience.
By capturing the thrills and chills, the strangeness and wonder of circuses, these modern photographers hold up a mirror that reflects both the boundaries and possibilities of life in 20th century society.
—Elizabeth Siegel, Curator, Photography and Media
- From curator