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
In 1958 Davidson traveled out to
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
The last section of photographs, also made on assignment, is of the James Duffy and Sons Circus in
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
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