Ringling photo exhibit features turn-of-the-century circus performers

Bradenton Herald – They were beautiful and exotic.

Turn-of-the-century circus folk were always known as such. They included clowns, aerialists, contortionists and glamorous ladies with the power to tame tigers.

But beneath the makeup, the costumes and the tricks, they were normal people living a celebrated, gypsy lifestyle.

That’s what can be seen in the Ringling Museum’s next exhibition, “Heyday: The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier,” which opens Saturday. Glasier’s camera captured hundreds of these prolific entertainers during the late 1800s and early 1900s, when circus was king.

“The camera has an amazing, unrivaled capacity to record spectacle — and the circus was certainly spectacle,” said Peter Kayafas, co-curator of the exhibition and author of “Circus: The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier.” “It’s also clear that Glasier was drawn to people, perhaps to people who were on the margin of conventional society — i.e. circus performers or performers in general, who had some special approach to their craft.”

The Ringling’s Circus Museum collection holds 1,700 of Glasier’s images, but only 60 will be shown for the exhibition.

To coincide with the event, the Sarasota-based contemporary dance troupe Moving Ethos will interpret a handful of Glasier’s circus photos through a dance concert dubbed “The Center Ring” on Friday and Saturday at the Historic Asolo.

Through the lens

Glasier served as the official photographer for the Barnum & Bailey Circus, according to the museum. He had unrestricted access to all aspects of circus life. It may have been a epic assignment for a photographer since, back then, the circus was treated like a front-page news event in each city it traveled to.

“The circus was the largest, single, social spectacle at the time,” said Deborah Walk, co-curator of the exhibition. “It was a common denominator that gave people information about electricity, about hot air balloons. People saw their first car in the circus. The films were first debuted in a circus tent. So it was place where people came.”

But there was a part of the circus where the public couldn’t roam. That was the back lot, where Glasier shot many of his eye-catching photos.

His photo style: Portraits that depict a sort of drama or emotion. They focus solely on the circus entertainers themselves. No one else.

“If you look in the background, there’s never any people,” said Kayafas. “So it’s a private performance for Glasier’s camera and therefore for us.”

Kayafas notes that all of Glasier’s work was done with an ancient precursor to today’s instant digital cameras, which makes Glasier’s talent as a photographer stand out even more. His pictures were taken with view camera — a large, 15-20 pound box of wood with a glass lens, a frosted plate, shutter release and dark cloth that sat on a tripod.

“This is not a snap shot camera,” Kayafas said. “I bring that up first because what that does is set the stage for us to understand the kind of relationship that he had to had with his subjects in order to get a certain kind of photograph.”

Kayafas said Glasier must have had an extraordinary relationship with his subjects to take such story-telling portraits.

The six versatile members of Moving Ethos became fascinated with many of the stories Glasier’s photos seem to tell, especially the femininity of women circus performers.

“It was interesting to us to see how — even though they were doing the freakiest acts like hanging by their teeth and walking the tight rope and things like this — they desperately wanted to be seen as a higher part of society,” Courtney Smith, co-artistic director of Moving Ethos, said of the women. “So they did that through the way that they dressed, they way that they carried themselves and things like that. It was really intriguing to me to see that dichotomy of their personality just in a picture.”

The company’s opening piece, “Side Show,” plays with that feminine vibe.

The dance concert also features a challenging trapeze piece that depicts a lesson of trust within a circus family. There’s also a dance about clowns that shows the playful and serious sides to clown life, along with the huge responsibility they held in the hierarchy of the circus.

“The clowns are the most important part of the circus,” Smith said. “They were there to make the transitions. They were there to laugh and have a good time — they were in charge of that.”

Man behind the camera

While Glasier’s pictures say much about him as a photographer, little is known about the Massachusetts native. What is known can be traced through two letters and an old advertising pamphlet, said Walk, who is also the curator of the Circus Museum.

Walk said Glasier was born in 1866 — the same year as John Ringling — and he died in 1950. He grew up three houses down from the neighborhood pharmacist, who happened to be a photographer with his own darkroom.

In 1898, Glasier was a photo printer. Then, a year later, he copyrighted his first photo — at least his first that the museum knows of — at the Library of Congress, Walk said.

Much of his photos, dating from 1899 to 1934, are in the Ringling collection, which is the only known collection of the photographer’s work that exists, said Walk.

Over the years, the Circus Museum has used Glasier’s photos to highlight various aspects of the circus at the Tibbals Learning Center.

But Kayafas believes more national and perhaps international recognition should be given to Glasier outside of the Circus Museum’s walls.

“Glasier has yet to enjoy that legacy,” he said. “So one of the things we’re trying to do here is help people get access to him so they can form their own opinions, which we feel strongly will be that he is indeed an important photographer.”

published May 9, 2010

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