Once again, I have visited this highly subjective task in the search for photos to illustrate my latest effort, Inside the Changing Circus.
Strange empty feeling. In a few days I will not be trekking to the post office with a package addressed to my publisher, but sending off the entire manuscript, with captions slotted at photo placement points, via e-mail attachments.
Luckily, you can go photo fishing in the digital age without booking travel. Still, the challenge can be a daunting one when institutions with the goods you seek either don’t respond or place bureaucratic hurdles in your path; when circus companies display equal indifference. Which makes the rare generosity of a primary source particularly gratifying. In this instance, three people came through with flying colors for me, and a perfect storm of access and publisher latitude tempted me to illustrate, illustrate, illustrate!
To start with, my publisher, BearManor Media, placed no limit on the number of photos allowable. Add to this the most agreeable terms offered me by two major sources — the Milner Library at Illinois State University, in particular its Special Collections librarian Maureen Brunsdale and her crack photo fisher wiz, Mark Schmitt; and, secondly, Tim Tegge and his Baraboo-based Tegge Archives. And what a colossal temptation visited me! Free of normal restraints, I, a self-confessed Ringlingphile, have forced myself to err on the side of self-control. Of relevance, not redundancy. In total, there are 74 photographs. Easily, there could have been twice that many. What pleases me the most is that they are fairly spread throughout the entire work.
There is a point of no return, I believe, between a book meant to be read, really read, and one that is so photographically indulgent as to render itself virtually unreadable. Such would be the case with The Circus: 1870-1950 (one of its many titles). Its prose may be fine, for all I know. But under the sheer weight of its museumesque pretensions, and given how tiny the type font is, I haven’t the will to find out.
Some if not most of my favorite big top tomes are hardly illustrated at all: This Way to the Big Show; I Love You Honey, But the Season's Over; Bradna’s Big Top; Taylor's Center Ring; North's Circus Kings.
My personal favorite American circus history book is Earl Chapin May’s The Circus From Rome to Ringling. I think of it as being profusely illustrated in the older black and white mode, but, in fact, it bears not many more than 50-60 images. Numerous pages pass by without visuals. Somehow, its illustrations enliven it in a manner than lends the illusion of a well illustrated tome.
Jerry App’s excellent study of the Ringling brothers, Ringlingville, might have benefited by a third less photos; Some of his choices are so vague as to be barely engaging.
On the other hand, for any die-hard Ringling fan who can't ever get enough quality black and whites, perhaps no other book can touch Chappie Fox's A Ticket to the Circus: A Pictorial History of the Incredible Ringlings. Containing over 300 illustrations, yet thanks to a judicious layout respecting the printed word, the chapters, each addressing a specific topic, do not feel crowded out by photographs. It's compact size, less than 200 pages, makes it a most welcome visitor.
As for my latest, I am excited to announce that most of the Milner’s will be “first time in print” offerings. So, too, for Tanbark Tim’s. And thanks to the gracious cooperation of Phillip Thurstan at the Big Apple Circus; of documentary filmmaker Phil Weyland; and of Kelly Miller's James Royal, the contemporary scene gets fair coverage in some excellent photography.
But I don’t have Cirque King Guy Laliberte. OK, maybe he's not that much to look at, but what a power to behold. You can’t always get everything you want. Not, I suppose, unless you are willing to pay the prohibitively high reprint fees routinely charged by newspapers, magazines and various media. It’s a new world, and therein lies another example of how old media is failing to adapt. “Fair usage,” a legal concept allowing the unsanctioned fee-free publication of a small sampling of a given work, is finally flexing its populist muscles in the age of the internet and against egregiously unfair new copyright extension laws. You will see, if you scroll down through this blog, dozens of photos I’ve taken off newspapers and other media, crediting each. Not once has a news organization contacted me to cease and desist. In Cyber space, fair usage is no longer being silenced by intimidating shake-down lawyers.
Thinking back over my experience illustrating four previous circus books, I gratefully recall a few compassionate souls who made my efforts such a pleasure, who were so generous in the terms of sharing; they no doubt sensed I was not going to get rich, and I did not get rich: the charming John Hurdle at the Ringling Museum; The Russians in Moscow; Tim Tegge; The late Ringling photographer Ted Sato; Erin Foley, formerly with Circus World Museum. Add, now, Maureen Brunsdale.
My favorite photo in this, my eighth book, is a Milner, not before seen, of some young flyers on the platform at the YMCA circus in Bloomington, among them, the lean imperial figure of Bob Fisher and a giddy Gracie Genders, full of the breezy confidence of youth. Perfect find.
Ah, the thrill of the Big Catch when you go photo fishing under the big top!
originally published August 21, 2011