Midnight Circus tours every fall in public parks around Chicago. I’ve worked with the company on-and-off since I was 14 years old–more than half my life. The same can be said for many members of the cast. As a result, the relationship between the artists, the directors, and our friends and loved ones is extremely familial. The back-lot of the circus is the setting for much of our lives lived together–a setting we create ourselves, inhabit, and dismantle. To be there is to experience a hyper-real lifecycle that, inevitably, ends far too soon. The circus back-lot is an exceptionally romantic and emotional place, of course, but one that is also tedious and uncomfortable. It is a workplace that feels more like a secret clubhouse, where the deepest confidences are shared beneath the roar of the crowd. Embedded among the cast, with a surfeit of time, familiarity, and access, I have the leisure to capture these fleeting and intimate moments that few will ever get to see up close. I shoot on an old iphone 6. I’ve broken and repaired the screen twice in the two-and-a-half years I’ve owned it. My phone’s storage is always low because I never delete anything. In this way, my phone is like an old film camera–I have to be selective with the shots I take, lest I run out of space when I come across a good photo opportunity. My back-lot pictures are exclusively in black-and-white and portrait orientation. I’ve had no training in photography, and so I’ve taught myself by enacting a strict set of limitations in which I work. Before I had any idea how to compose and edit a photograph, I was overwhelmed by the apparently infinite amount of ways it could be done. Now that I have parameters to work within, I simply ask myself what story I’m trying to tell with a particular shot, and compose and edit the photograph to best tell that story.
Jeff Jenkins (director, ringmaster) stands inside the backstage tunnel. Metal poles are ubiquitous at the circus. As one of the two people in charge of loading the truck, I know this first-hand. The poles oftentimes clutter shots, but in lucky circumstances they can frame a subject in an interesting way. While Jeff has spent his life in circus and has mastered perhaps every vocation within the field, his expression here recalls the wonderment that can be found ringside on the faces of children at every performance. Regina Meirmanova (tissue) sits beneath the box truck. The box truck figures heavily in my photographs. The artists often seek out the shade underneath it, and its clean lines and solid-white body make for an appealing background. Regina, 14, is part of a multi-generational circus family. Her position–between the circus truck in the background, and her cell phone in the foreground–suggests her place between the old world and the new. Lindsay Culbert-Olds (straps) poses on the stake-line. When a performer knows their picture is being taken, getting a “natural” shot can be difficult. Luckily, as the run has worn on, the artists have grown accustomed to me taking photos. Here, Lindsay’s arm obstructs the ratchet strap in the background–implying mastery of her apparatus, straps, which are made of the same material as the straps holding down the tent. Ezra Weill (hat juggling, musician) trims his mustache in the truck mirror. In addition to being used for transportation, storage, and shade, the box truck provides handy mirrors for the artists to check their faces before the show. Sam Brown (clown, musician) rests his head on a packing blanket. On the back-lot, there’s no shortage of artists lying down to conserve energy. Sam Brown, pulling double-duty as tent boss and clown, knows the value of this skill all too well. Julie Jenkins (director, clown, musician) laughs atop an a-frame ladder. Julie’s laugh is irresistible, even in photographs. Here, the truck once again makes for an uncluttered backdrop. Melvin Diggs (Chinese hoop, pole) walks beside the truck. The truck comes through once again: its lines move in perfect contrast to Melvin’s forward stride. Owen Winship (hand-to-hand, Chinese hoops, musician) puts on his costume in the dressing tent. The musculature of a circus artist lends itself naturally to photography. The light landed just right for this shot. Melvin Diggs and Meghane Poulette (hand-to-hand) talk outside the dressing tent. The light around Meghane’s face, the shape of Melvin’s hands, and the expression shared between the two subjects make for a classical composition and one of my favorite photos of the season. Max Jenkins (rola bola) leans against a crash mat. Max, when he’s not goofing off, can often be found looking pensive. Already a show-business veteran at age 12, he knows well how to hurry up and wait. Kia Eastman (rope) listens as a morning meeting concludes. Usually I avoid inside-the-tent shots in favor of the natural light backstage. In this case I was drawn to Kia’s posture against the two disjointed ring-curbs. Lindsay Culbert-Olds stretches before entering the ring for her number. Each artist has a final set of preparations they go through in the moments before they enter the ring; here I caught Lindsay’s just before she entered the tunnel. Patrick Tobin (tightwire), enjoys a moment of peace before the second show. On the often chaotic backlot, quiet and solitude are hard to come by. Case in point, here I can be found exploiting Patrick’s private pre-show ritual for my own gain. Luckily, he didn’t know I had taken a photograph until he saw it on Instagram. While the light in this photo isn’t ideal, the composition was too good to pass up. Abby Suskin (tightwire, choreographer) takes a sip of water under the manta. The manta (the awning above the opening backstage) is a natural gathering point for the artists. It’s a shady spot where the water and other refreshments are kept. Here, the ice cream cone shape formed by the water jug, pole, and strap makes for an appealing frame for the subject. Sidney Bateman (Chinese hoops, pole) poses beneath the manta. The straps holding down the manta often support the weight of weary circus artists as well. Sidney is one of the best at what he does, illustrated here by his easy confidence. Adam Strom (Chinese hoops, musician) takes a sip of La Croix. Hydration is of the utmost importance on a hot day at the circus. Here, Adam, from Australia, tries for the first time the Midwestern carbonated water beverage that’s sweeping the nation. Willem McGowan (diabolo) circles-up with the cast. Five minutes before each show, the cast and crew stand in a circle to share any relevant information, have a moment of focus and appreciation for each other, and finally to perform a group cheer. This photo was taken at Lake Shore Park in downtown Chicago. Notice how Willem’s shirt is only halfway on; I often arrive at circle-up not quite ready for the show myself. Aerial Emery (hula-hoops) and Adam Strom embrace before the show. After circle-up the artists wish each other a good (and safe, and fun) show individually. Sam Jenkins (aerial hoop) and Max Jenkins sit in the shade outside the big top. This is my favorite photo of the season. The adults on the show can’t wait to see who the children will become when they grow up; here, we have a memento that will perhaps prove telling. Jeff Jenkins and Rosie (dog) drive to site for another day of work. Midnight Circus is unique in that it’s an urban circus confined to one city–Chicago. The artists are subject to the same realities as any other city dweller–except, of course, when we’ve made our morning commute, we get to experience life on a circus back-lot. Here, Jeff and Rosie face traffic on Western Avenue en route to McKinley Park.