Five days alongside the circus.

As a photographer, you always feel a little more aware of your surroundings than other people. After all, your livelihood depends on your eyes, on seeing things that other’s don’t. But it’s easy to forget that no matter how aware you are, everyone eventually becomes numb to their daily environment. That’s why traveling outside your comfort zone is so important to longevity in this industry, it keeps your eyes fresh, not just on the road but when you come back home. And traveling doesn’t necessarily mean somewhere far either, it could be another neighborhood, a different block, a quick hike, or yes, biking through Cambodia.

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones and new perspectives ever since I moved to the foot of Mt. San Jacinto, which towers above Coachella Valley in California. Every day something new catches my eye, or my ear, it’s been an invigorating experience. And those experiences are what really keep my art alive, keep me passionate about doing what I do. Case in point; earlier this year I was driving in Yucca Valley, on my way to Joshua Tree when I noticed some circus trucks in an open field. I could see the beginnings of a tent under construction, workers hurrying to-and-fro in the crisp morning air.

I parked and walked over to the campground, where I eventually struck up a conversation with the owner of the Ramos Bros. Circus, Oliver. He recognized my accent and as it turned out, he had traveled all over Scandinavia years before, as part of another circus. That coincidence provided an opportunity to ask if it would be okay for me to take some pictures of the circus, and perhaps because of that connection, he acquiesced. I came back with my wife the next night, just to take in the show as an audience member. One of the things that really caught my eye was how the imperfections really added to the rustic charm of the entire operation; this wasn’t Barnum & Bailey, and it was better for it. It seemed like everyone on the staff performed several different roles in the course of a night; ticket taker one minute, leading show horses the next, fire-eating tomorrow. All of this only added to the warmth and intimacy of the experience.

The whole thing was very spontaneous and I had to do a lot of adapting on the fly, but that’s also what made it fun. I remember standing in total darkness behind the curtains with some of the artists and thinking how the hell can I get anything captured with almost no light at all but it worked out. I went to almost every show they had in town.I would be sitting at home, planning on taking the night off but the thought of what I might be missing just kept nagging me, and the next thing you know, I’m halfway down Highway 62. I saw five shows over the week or so that they spent in town, each time trying to find a new angle or idea. One day I even went to the local Home Depot and rented the cherry picker so I was able to capture the whole tent from a different perspective.

I really want to thank the entire Ramos Bros. Circus for so graciously opening their doors to me and letting me spend some time in their world. 

The first time I went to see the show my wife and I were sitting in the front row. When the cannon went off and the man went flying over us I snapped a shot. I didn’t actually expect much when I looked at the back of the camera but somehow, I had nailed it. This is the photo that convinced me I needed to come back the next day. Everything that this project is about; wonder and spectacle alongside the rough-hewn DIY aesthetic of the circus and the hard-working people who make it go, all of that is in this picture. 

This was the Black Falcon's first performance and afterwards he seemed slightly disappointed by how it went, but as far as I could tell, the fans loved it. Kids and superheroes.

I wanted to try and find an elevated vantage point for some shots, but none of the neighboring buildings were high enough. I’ve used cranes before on commercial jobs and never had as much of a hassle renting one as I did on this job. I called a bunch of crane companies in the area but everything was booked, and pricey to boot. I actually ended up finding a cherry-picker at Home Depot, but you have to tow it yourself. Luckily, finding a vehicle with towing capacity is not that difficult at a circus and everyone there was happy to help. It was all worth it once I saw this shot though; the light fell perfectly, people were just starting to stream into the campground, and then those candy striped tents against the desert and that sky, you can’t ask for a better backdrop. 

This was a funny moment because all the dogs are waiting for that last dog to jump down but that dog has decided that there isn’t going to be any more jumping that night. The dog show was funny because something would always go a little bit off script. A couple dog’s wouldn’t be listening, or maybe one would run off to pee somewhere, it was all very imperfect but again, that was part of the charm. 

This guy is one of the veterans of this circus and like a lot of the people there, he wears a lot of hats in a day. When I saw him operating the spotlight, and all the amazingly diffused light leaking from it’s ventilation slats, I knew it would be a great picture. He is such an old hand, haha, he can see me but he never even acknowledged that I was shooting there, just fully locked in on his job. I shot this with only the available light too.

I took this backstage, before the Black Falcon’s first performance at the circus, so I think he was actually quite nervous. All the light is coming from a door that was momentarily propped open, which was almost the only way you could ever really see anything. The pony was already hitched up to that wagon, so I just asked him to sit down there while he waited to go on. I have to say that everyone involved was very helpful and indulged my presence and odd requests. I think it helps that I used a very low-key camera set up- specifically my Leica - which I think helps people just be natural in situations like this. It comes off as very amateurish and everyone just kinda let’s you do your thing instead of freezing up because you are holding a “fancy” camera.