Laaadies and gentlemen! Boys and girls! Children of all ages! Now appearing before your very eyes . . . the daring . . . the amazing . . . the phenomenal . . . photographs of Frederick . . . W. . . . Glasier!
(Loud drum roll, please.)
And here they come: the elephants, the horses, a daring young woman on a flying trapeze, the snake charmer, acrobats, death-defying feats on high wires. . . . Send in the clowns!
Glasier (1866-1950) captured them all in a remarkable body of work during the early 20th century when traveling circuses were in their heyday.
"Heyday: The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier" at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art takes us back to that era.
And introduces to the arts canon a name that was almost lost.
The photographs here represent a 20-year conservation project at the museum, which acquired 1,700 of Glasier's glass plate negatives from a collector in 1963. They were in bad shape, many broken, and suffered even more when the Ringling's basement flooded in the 1970s.
Thanks to technology and grants from major foundations, all have been scanned and cataloged and the images preserved. The 64 in this show validate why they are worth preserving. Glasier was not only a fine documentarian but also a gifted portrait artist.
Most of what we know about Glasier comes from public records. He was born, lived and died in Massachusetts, first in Adams, a small town in the state's northwest, and later in Brockton, a larger city in the southeast. He seems to have bounced around a lot professionally in his young adulthood but by the time he was 30, he was learning about photography: The Brockton city directory lists his occupation as photo printer. Photography was a new medium and Glasier seems to have joined hundreds of other nascent photographers across the country who opened studios that supplied portraits of the locals.
They were all self-taught and Deborah Walk, curator of the Ringling's Circus Museum and co-curator of this show, speculates that Glasier probably learned basics of the craft from a Brockton pharmacist who also dabbled in photography.
Glasier quickly became a pro and probably earned a good part of his living with studio work. But he was clearly captivated by the roving circuses that migrated to small towns across the country every summer. In a time before movies, the circus was the most popular form of collective entertainment. When it arrived, schools and businesses closed and the entire community turned out to watch it parade through the city in a grand progress to its campgrounds where the circus staff and entertainers lived in tents and wagons.
Glasier recorded everything: the pandemonium of the circus' arrival, the raising of the big top tent and the myriad members of a circus — from cooks to daredevils. He had a gift for composition and for putting his subjects at ease. Even though most appear in costume, they seem to drop their professional personas and give us a glimpse of their individual selves. Glasier imbued them all with dignity, too.
Technically, some of his shots are nothing short of amazing. He worked with a large-format camera and glass negatives. He didn't have a viewfinder; he had to know in his head how a shot would look. And he didn't have a multitude of lenses or rapid shutter speeds. Yet in one striking photograph, the interior of the main tent from a distance appears to have been made with a wide-angle lens, which hadn't yet been invented. Closer, you see it's two shots sandwiched together to create the effect, which must have been really tricky since he had to estimate how to position the camera to get the pastiche.
Another masterful photograph captures the in-air flight of a woman from her trapeze to her partner's outstretched hands. Glasier could never have gotten that with the standard shutter of his day, which typically had a speed of 1/60th of a second. Glasier adapted his shutter to record 1/1000th of a second, unheard of then.
It worked for the dazzling stop-action shots but he used his slower shutter for most of his portraits because it provided a truer depth of field and more nuance. At one point he was the "official" photographer for the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circuses and had nearly exclusive access behind the scenes. The photographs were not taken during performances but in off moments of relaxation or rehearsal, so there's an intimacy to them. Sometimes performers posed for him in his Brockton studio.
Absent from this exhibition is any sense of freakishness. And literally, the "freaks" who populated the sideshow are also absent. Except for an armless photographer, no one has a physical disability for exploitation and Glasier actually makes taking a photograph with one's toes look everyday as two well-dressed patrons pose nonchalantly with their Pekingese. Whether the omission was due to the reticence of the performers or Glasier, we don't know. But he sure wasn't going after sensationalism.
The exhibition includes posters and in one serendipitous pairing is a photograph of Isabella Butler and a poster promoting the terrifying loop-the-loop in her small car called the Dip of Death.
Also included are photographs by Eugene Atget, August Sander and Ernest Bellocq, all well-known contemporaries. Glasier probably never heard of these men but their juxtaposed work makes the stronger case for Glasier's prescience and talent.
Consider purchasing the catalog with reproductions of every image in the show and excellent essays by Luc Sante and the show's co-curator, Peter Kayafas, who also heads up the Eakins Press Foundation that published it.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.