Friday, August 10, 2007

Circus by Bruce Davidson

I’m of two minds when it comes to the work of Bruce Davidson. There is the Davidson capable of great social commentary with books like East 100th Street and Brooklyn Gang and then there is the Bruce Davidson who seems less political and more commercially minded with books like Central Park or perhaps Subway. His new book Circus sits comfortably somewhere in the middle.

In 1958 Davidson traveled out to New Jersey to photograph the Clyde Beatty Circus in Palisades Park. It was during this first encounter within the circus atmosphere that he met the subject of one of his well known photo essays, Jimmy “Little Man” Armstrong. It is this essay in its complete form that opens the book Circus.

Published this year by Steidl, the book is broken into three separate sections of pictures for each circus Davidson photographed. The first, the Clyde Beatty Circus, was approached out of self motivation and at the suggestion from a Magnum photo agency employee. The images from the other two occasions in 1965 and 1967 were made on assignments for magazines. Although the results photographically, with a few exceptions, seem to be made from the same state of curiosity (as oppose to fulfilling magazine assignments) it is the earliest work with the Clyde Beatty circus that wins out.

It is in those early photos that the sense of circus life for the performers and animals is described most effectively. Davidson ingratiated himself into and the lives of the performers and circus workers without any official permission. In these pictures, the circus may be enjoyable to watch for the audience but the atmosphere behind the scenes seems exhausting with little space for comfort and long work hours. The crew seems to be a collection of outsiders whose dreams are fading and the reality of the constant life on the road has replaced them. Aside from the wonderful essay on Jimmy the dwarf (21 images), Davidson works from subject to subject staying well within our preconceptions of what circuses are. Elephants, an animal that proves to be an attraction for any photographer, get their fair share of attention before Davidson’s lens; more so than even the lion tamer or the actual performers themselves.

With the second section of the book, that was made on assignment photographing the Ringling Brothers Circus in North Carolina in 1965, the atmosphere is much cleaner and seems less claustrophobic. Again, Davidson covers the scene well but with little variation of subject from the set of pictures from the previous section.

The last section of photographs, also made on assignment, is of the James Duffy and Sons Circus in Ireland in 1967. This section of only 13 images has a completely different tone to the pictures. Mostly this is because Davidson has switched to the 4X5 camera whose descriptive power is so compelling, even the final staged portrait of the entire circus becomes infused with added interest. Like in East 100th Street, Davidson handles the larger format well while working on the fly. These images concentrate a bit more on the actual performances and their craftsmanship with the larger format makes the viewer wish that he was off assignment and could spend more time creating an entire portrait of the surroundings like he attempted in the earlier series.

The descriptive differences apparent in this book made me think about a conversation I had with an older photographer who challenged me to name a great contemporary artist working in 35mm today. Admittedly I was stumped for an answer as most working artists today are utilizing at least medium format if not large format cameras.

Apart from Davidson which most people would regard as a photojournalist and may not afford him the grand title of being an artist, this book illustrates my thinking towards both types of description. I am so seduced by the clarity and extension of tonal range that is a characteristic of the larger negative that at first I think that is my preference. Then looking back at the first series of images, it is the fluidity and seeming speed at which the camera can be operated to describe fleeting moments that wins out.

The book is beautifully printed and the design is clean and straightforward. The tan color of the bookcloth and dirt colored endpapers foreshadow the darker tone that the book has in its content. A reproduction of the famous image of Jimmy Armstrong smoking in the rain is tipped into the cover. The quality of paper and material matches some of the other fine Davidson titles seen published in the past few years.

Bruce opens the book with an essay entitled 'The Dwarf and The Elephant Girl' in which he gives his recollections in an eloquent fifteen hundred words. To finish, there is an essay from Sam Holmes titled 'Remarkable Feats – Some Notes on the Circus and Bruce Davidson’s Photographs.' Sam Holmes was in charge of the picture library at Magnum Photos and was the person who suggested that Davidson go check out the circus in Palisades Park, New Jersey. His lengthy essay is full of information on circuses and the lives of the performers featured in Davidson’s photos. It is an interesting read until one odd moment in his essay where he defends the practice of circuses like Ringling Brothers and their use of animals in the acts. Here he writes at length about the good deeds for elephant well-being accomplished by Ringling Brothers, and the essay seems to deteriorate into a press release from their PR department.

Holmes writes: Joining other conservation groups, Ringling backed passage of the Asian Elephant Conservation Reauthorization Act of 2002. This act was to provide a total of four million dollars of public and privately donated funds for conservation projects in twelve countries through the year 2007. This was good news for the millions of Americans who learned to love elephants at circuses and zoos, but conservation needs to be a long-term effort, and will need continuing political support by the American public. I fear that if elephants are banned from American circuses, as animal extremists are urging, the next generation would forget about them, and the preservation effort would falter and fail.

So with these passages from Sam Holmes, this seemingly non political book becomes momentarily but unnecessarily infused with the politics of today.

That aside is not enough to detract; the main detriment to this title is that the content seems to have been stretched a bit to make a full book. It would have been a much less commercially successful project, but I could image a wonderful but very small book containing only the 21 images from the Jimmy Armstrong material. Those are the images that Davidson made while he lived with the circus for several weeks. In this book, those are the images that will continue to compel me to bring this title down off the shelf.

Buy online at Steidlville