Clayton Anderson – Kicking Sawdust: Running Away with the Circus and Carnival

Review by Gerhard Clausing

Once upon a time in the not-so-distant past, live entertainment played a much larger role in stimulating our imagination. Among the exciting amusements that we fondly remember are circuses and carnivals. When those shows came to town, the otherwise predictable life of a place was touched by another world – exotic bits of magic from far-away places with performers that, at least to a youngster, seemed somehow super-human; they certainly represented another universe much more appealing than the customary system of parental and societal regimentation. Who among us did not dream of being the hero shot out of a cannon or of dazzling the audience as an artist up on the high wire? Who did not dream of running away with the circus to escape their more boring ordinary daily existence for an imagined life of artistic freedom?

Well, Clayton Anderson did exactly that. He took over his family concession stand and traveled with such itinerant performance troupes for several years some thirty years ago. Not only did he experience the ups and downs of such an existence, but got to know the performers very well. Most especially, as a young man starting his career, he was encouraged to document his experiences visually. Some thirty years later, we are able to share this time capsule in the form of this book, and it allows us vicarious participation in a special remote universe that is particularly fascinating in pandemic times that place strictures on our in-person events.

The photographs Clayton Anderson presents here are a mixture of performance and rehearsal shots as well as portraits of the participants. What distinguishes this project from others is that the portraits show that the photographer was able to establish a personal connection with the various individuals. This makes the depictions more realistic and honest, as Anderson shows us the reality behind the glamor. Some of the individuals shown, such as the person of short build or the fully tattooed lady, do not seem as exotic or out of the ordinary now as they might have seemed in a previous time in which they were able to arouse special curiosity.

We are able to sense that circus and carnival folks enjoy their work, arduous though it may be. That seems to apply to the animal performers as well. Many of us have taught our pets, who are also part of our families, some tricks to perform, and they have taught us some tricks as well (such as expecting us to provide food for them at regular intervals). A major difference is that the audiences in the side shows and circuses are somewhat larger, and some of the animals are too.

An additional bonus are the many photographs that document events behind the scenes. The people that are behind the performers out front are as important to the overall success of the venture. Here too, both the stress and the joy of the work are often in evidence, and the overall impact is one of greater realism, providing evidence of the human foundation on which spectacular and dazzling outcomes are based. There seems to be less pretense shown in these photographs than in other similar projects on this subject. The essays and conversations provided by Jack Pierson, who got Anderson started in the world of photography, and by Katharine Kavanagh, Tessa Fontaine, and Dominique Jando, help us understand the historical context as well as the connection between the performers’ personal and professional realms.

The images are well printed, on heavier stock, and it is a pleasure to view the entire sequence. The list of captions makes us curious about some of the individuals. Is it better to keep us wondering about who they were in their time, as performers and as private people, or would the images be enhanced by some additional stories and anecdotes that Clayton Anderson might provide? Even as it is, we are glad this time capsule is available, a glimpse into a circus and carnival world of the past that has since evolved. Showmanship and live entertainment still enthrall us, even as attitudes and sensibilities are changing.


Clayton Anderson – Kicking Sawdust: Running Away with the Circus and Carnival

Photographer:  Clayton Anderson (born in Santa Monica, California; lives in New York City)

Publisher:  Daylight Books, Durham, North Carolina, USA; © 2020

Essay and Texts:  Katharine Kavanagh (foreword); Jack Pierson (introduction); Tessa Fontaine and Dominique Jando (conversation)

Language:  English

Hardcover, illustrated, stitched binding; 116 pages, paginated; 8.25 x 10.25 inches (21 x 26 cm); printed in China by Artron


Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).

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