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Popular Culture Association (PCA) 2024 National Conference

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Photography, Circus


Images in the Charles Clarke Circus Photographs Collection document the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in the 1920s. Clarke, a leaper in the world-renowned aerial act, The Clarkonians, would have been in a relatively unique position to capture views of the circus from the vantage point of an insider. The resulting images carry the weight of that perspective. The photographs document important aspects of the circus, showing performers like Lillian Leitzel and May Wirth, spectacle wardrobe, practices and performances in the ring, and quieter moments behind the big top.

The images document a particular point in time, freezing the action of specific scenes, but viewed together they also create a sense of collective time and space. Further complicating—and arguably enriching—this experience is the way that passing time has altered the physical materials. The decay of the original nitrate negatives has added an ethereal quality that enhances the perception of time. The changes to the photographic surfaces add a narrative quality, a sense of movement and motion, that captures an intangible aspect of the historical documentation. The space between the pristine images and their altered states captures an essence of old circus shows and imparts a quality that is both timeless and fluid.

Collector Sverre Braathen held the Clarke negatives for many years and made prints from the volatile nitrate negatives decades ago, before time began its process of erasure. Thus, Milner Library now has both the documentary evidence from the undamaged originals and the exquisitely evocative decayed images. This presentation will compare the documentary evidence of the undamaged prints made by Braathen with the mood of the fading nitrate negatives and examine how these depictions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus are now fragmented, fleeting, and yet fixed in a time and place.


This paper was presented as part of the conference session Circuses and Sideshow Culture I (Session 4081).



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