August Sander Takes His Camera to the Circus

August Sander, a German photographer, chose not to focus on his circus performers’ acrobatics or spectacular performances.

He presented them as citizens and showed them in their homes with the family they chose. Sander’s photographs of circus workers, taken between 1926-32, come from People of the Twentieth Century — a decade-long project that depicted hundreds of Sander’s fellow citizens according to social class and occupation. The circus photos are part of a section called “Traveling People.” This contrasts his first group, farmers or people rooted in the land. Instead, these subjects were categorized according to mobility and perceived rootlessness.

Circus Artists, 1926/32 (Zirkusartisten), printed 1990August Sander

Sander’s portrait of Barum’s American Caravan Menagerie workers (which is different from Barnum’s American Caravan Menagerie in America) depicts a group on break gathered around a radio on the steps of their car. The composition, which includes people of color in gypsy costumes and references jazz, is a radical departure from what was considered traditional German culture. They are outsiders and may conflict with or oppose the middle-class culture that is the pinnacle of belonging. Yet, Sander’s portrait of the group shows much humanity.

August Sander, Girl in Fairground Vehicle (Madchen im Kirmeswagen), printed 1990 1926/1932.

Circuses were always on the move and often parked on the edge of towns. They represented a culture on the fringes of society and a community that defined the outer limits of the middle class. This portrait shows a girl inside a fairground caravan, half inside and half outside, suggesting the liminal spaces circus performers occupied within German society.

The two newly acquired iconic August Sander prints made us think about the role circuses played in the photography of the 1920s and 1930s. It was a place of daring feats and thrills that appealed to a childlike wonder. There were also overtones of the primitive and exotic with ethnographic displays and curious sideshows. The revealing costumes suggested a more relaxed morality. Acrobatic feats and displays of strength implied physical freedom and transformation. Many photographers were drawn to the visual possibilities offered by the circus. They focused on the set or the action, such as the geometric shapes of the tent or bodies flying high above on tightropes or trapezes.


 Circus Performers (Artisten), 1929 Umbo (Otto Umbehr)

Umbo opened a photography studio and, over the years, published his photos in many magazines. He also included them in exhibitions that featured “new photography.” This photograph was taken as part of an article on circus performers called “Limbering Up,” published in the Munich Illustrated Press (this photo wasn’t included). In the Weimar era, he was drawn to Berlin’s cabaret and circus performers by their bohemian lifestyles and camaraderie. Here, the figures appear suspended in motion, as if occupying a world different from ours.

 Die 3 Codonas Im Berliner Wintergarten, 1931/32 Umbo

Umbo captured the Flying Codonas, Alfred and Lalo Codona – two of the most famous circus acrobats from the first half 20th century – high above the tables of astonished patrons. Untethered from all support, one performer flies dangerously with abandon. The photographer takes on nearly as much risk as the trapeze artist, and the photo becomes a thrilling take on physical accomplishment.


 Untitled, c. 1930 Eli Lotar

Eli Lotar, for example, used this image of a rope ladder swinging against the tent panels to create geometric abstraction. Lotar is best known for his uncanny photographic contributions to the Surrealist magazine Documents and his experimental films. This image was probably taken during a break in a circus performance. Lotar’s works were included in a powerful exhibition called “Modern European Photography” by Julien Levy. Levy is widely credited for introducing Surrealism into the American consciousness.


 Acrobats with Balls, New York 1936 IlseBing

Ilse Bing left her native Frankfurt, Germany, and art history training to become a professional photographer in Paris. She spent the majority of her 1930s there. “I became myself in Paris,” she said later. She started providing the burgeoning French press with fashion and documentary photos. Her pictures of the circus performers are isolated from the audience and seem to be in another world.


 Balancing, c. 1935William M. Rittase

Photographers in America shared the same impulse as their European counterparts and documented the circus shows that appeared nationwide. William Rittase captured an act of incredible balance. He added tension to the image by placing the figures in a diagonal grid of tightrope poles and balancing posts. Rittase was a commercial photographer and published regularly in Fortune. He produced a book of photos of the circus for children. His work was also more artistic and attracted the attention of Julien Levy, the gallerist and organizer of Murals By American Painters And Photographers, an exhibition held in 1932 by the Museum of Modern Art. The circus theme may have served as a link between popular entertainment and avant-garde possibilities.


 Untitled, 1934 Luke Swank

Julien Levy exhibited the works of Luke Swank and his work in galleries and museums. In 1934, Swank’s circus photographs were exhibited at the Delphic Studios in New York. A critic for Vanity Fair said that Swank was doing what Flaubert had done for the novel. Swank knew the circus intimately, as his son Harry worked for one when he was 16, perhaps against his father’s wishes. Harry spent the rest of his life working for a circus. Swank’s photos show performers smiling and beaming at the camera as they continue their performance in front of a single audience.

These modern photographers capture the thrills and chills of circuses and the strangeness and marvel of the spectacle. They are a mirror reflecting the limits and possibilities of 20th-century society.

Elizabeth Siegel, curator of Photography and Media

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