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  1. Visual Arts

Rare circus photos come to Tampa Bay History Center

A marvelous show of circus photographs that debuted at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota is coming to Tampa. So if you missed it in 2010, see it now. Or see it again at the Tampa Bay History Center beginning Saturday.

Frederick W. Glasier (1866-1950) created a remarkable body of work during the early 20th century when traveling circuses were in their heyday. His photographs were almost lost to history after the surviving glass plate negatives suffered years of neglect, even after the Ringling acquired 1,700 of them 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. After a 20-year conservation project, with a boost from grants and technology, all have been scanned and cataloged and we see 64 newly created prints from the group in this show.

Glasier was not only a fine documentarian but also had a gifted eye for composition. He was a self-taught photographer when it was still a nascent craft. He had studios in Massachusetts and probably made most of his living doing portraits of locals, 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 was given access behind the scenes, and that intimacy produced relaxed, natural shots along with astonishing shots, for their time, of performers captured in stop-action photos.

Information from Times files was used in this report. Lennie Bennett can be reached at or (727) 893-8293.