portfolio thumbnail Circus work 1970-1996

THE CIRCUS : Peter Lavery has spent the last 25 years following circuses around Britain and photographing the poignant contrasts between sequinned glamour and backstage ordinariness. By Bruce Bernard.


Photographer Peter Lavery is well known in the world of advertising for his smoke-signalling landscapes and alluring images of motor cars, jeans and many other allegedly life-enhancing products. But his admirers are largely unaware that for the past 25 years he has also been a serious photographer of those who make their living as circus performers. “On a visit home to Wakefield in 1970,” he explains, “I dropped in on a small indoor circus at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds and had a wander around behind the scenes before the performance began. I was immediately struck by the disparity between the outward exoticism – the finery, the sequinned costumes, the plumes, the elaborate display – and the backstage ordinariness. At once, I was enthralled by the sounds and smell, but I had no idea the subject would capture and hold my imagination for the best part of three decades.” The son of a Yorkshire miner, Lavery progressed via Leeds Art College to the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied photography. Before finishing his course there, he had already started travelling, and living rough, around the country in search of circuses, and he has photographed them ever since, with remarkable consistency, in his limited spare time: the latest pictures in his new book, now being exhibited at the Royal Photographic Society in Bath, were taken only this year. In common with other photographers of his generation, he has reverted, in pursuit of quality and detail, from the handy 35mm. camera to large- format ones, generally using 5″x4″ film. He is also among those who have rediscovered the platinum print, a refined and tonally subtle process which fell into disuse for four decades after World War I. Not surprisingly, one of the photographers Lavery most admires is August Sander, whose straightforward yet eloquent and truthful pictures of ordinary Germans, taken in the Twenties and Thirties, are now on show at the National Portrait Gallery. Peter Lavery at the circus may not be quite as emotionally neutral as Sander, but, like him, he makes essentially quite ordinary people seem extraordinary. His images are refreshing in that he never tries to romanticise circus life. His clowns are fairly ordinary human beings who don’t seem at all likely to start singing the famous aria from Pagliacci, a view of them that was best mocked in a New Yorker cartoon showing a collapsed clown being examined by a doctor near the ringside: “My God, man, your heart is breaking!” the medical man is exclaiming. Lavery’s female tightrope walkers mostly seem like working girls who happen to have sprouted wings, and the daring young girl on the flying trapeze is not treated as a privileged star. It would take a really great photographer, perhaps an Andre Kertesz, to equal or surpass what Lavery has done, and much of Lavery’s even glow of humanity and the unity of his vision might not be achieved in the process. To my knowledge, only Jill Freedman and Mary Ellen Mark have seriously tackled the subject recently, but not with the sustained, calm enjoyment that is Lavery’s great distinction. Lavery lives on a small farm in Gloucestershire with his wife Kimberley, who organises the complex transport of his cumbersome equipment around the world. He has taken many remarkable personal photographs on his travels, and hopes to publish a book of ethnic and national types. Whatever he achieves, however, his documentation of the circus will probably never be surpassed. The combination of spangles, ostrich feathers and mud, the incongruity of a trapeze set up for practice in a field with a horse grazing in the background, or a Hungarian brother and sister juggling with Indian clubs over a rustic English track, or the sight of Caroline Gerbola, both an aerial performer and an equestrian act, putting her horse through his paces in an Irish lane – all seem just as entertaining, and in some ways more beautiful, than the actual activities seen under the Big Top. These pictures are the only ones that make me want to return to the circus, several decades after being totally captivated by Bertram Mills’s at Olympia. European circus performers, as diverse in personal character as any other group of professional entertainers, share a special sense of distinction. Their avocation descends through families, fostering a stronger sense of clan. Also, some performers are surprisingly versatile. A female fire- eater, Baba Fossett, who was photographed by Lavery 25 years ago, has also had a troupe of performing dogs, been a bareback rider, a trapeze artist, a juggler, and an expert in all sorts of tricks with ropes. Likewise a Czech who once trained tigers and, in the early Seventies, did very dangerous balancing acts with swords and daggers; having lost his skill, he is now, at an advanced age, a human cannonball. Lavery’s photographs convey approval of their toughness, individuality and enterprise. They also create something of the feeling which provoked a piece of powerful “copy writing” by a famous circus impresario, John Ringling North (who also described the circus in his passion as a “jealous wench” and “ravening hag”). “People,” he wrote, “love this colossal thing that roars out of nowhere, sets up its rigging, offers a fleeting vision of breathtaking enchantment, and on the morrow disappears mysteriously into the night”. Long may that continue.

Peter Lavery’s `Circus Work 1970-1996′ is published by Hand Held Publications.