HEYDAY: Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier
May 15 to September 6, 2010
HEYDAY: Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier offers a glimpse into the most dynamic period of the American circus through the rarely seen photographs of Frederick W. Glasier (1866-1950). Drawn from the collections of the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, the exhibition was organized by the Eakins Press Foundation. Co-curated by Peter Kayafas and Deborah Walk, the exhibition features more than 60 photographs and approximately a dozen lithographic posters that depict the circus coming to town, performances of spectacular feats, and the behind-the-scenes life of circus members.
At the turn of the 20th century in America, the circus was an unmatched social spectacle. Large circus companies were like mobile cities, requiring an enormous staff to install and break down operations every few days. At their peak, circus companies toured more than 150 cities and towns each year, playing to more than two million people over a seven month season. HEYDAY will highlight the rediscovered work of Frederick W. Glasier, who photographed the circus and served as the official photographer for the Barnum & Bailey Circus on-and-off for three decades. Glasier’s unrestricted access to both grand performances and backstage life allowed him to explore the public and private personalities of some of the greatest entertainers of the era.
HEYDAY is arranged to chronologically illustrate the event of the circus coming to town. Lithographic promotional posters would vividly announce upcoming performances, with hyperbolic claims about the spectacular events soon to unfold. Examples of these posters are juxtaposed with Glasier’s photographs that document the arrival of the circus, from the excitement of parades that take over small towns, to the set-up of the massive big top tent, which could hold more than 12,000 people.
Highlights on view include photographs of circus performers captured in the midst of their acts, such as the Deike Sisters, a gymnastic family with the Barnum & Bailey circus. The exhibition features both a photograph (c. 1910) and a 1909 promotional poster that illustrate the Deike Sisters’ “contortional cleverness and muscular control in artistic bending.” Glasier also captured a split-second moment in a trapeze aerial act by the Flying Banvards in the photograph Maude Banvard, The Catch, Brockton Fair (1907).
Glasier’s great strength was as a portraitist, and his photographs reveal an intimate connection with the circus and sideshow performers. A 1914 portrait of Chief Iron Tail, a star of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, captured the strength and dignity of the last survivor of the Battles of Little Big Horn and Wounded Knee. His photograph of Mademoiselle Octavia (c. 1901), known as the “Yankee Snake Charmer,” has a sensual aspect as snakes writhe over Octavia’s form-fitting, sleeveless outfit. Charmion, Strong Woman (1904) is a bold image of a partially disrobed circus star whose muscular poses challenge ideas of feminine beauty and physical strength. Pete Mardo (1923) is a portrait of Peter Guckeyson, who ran away from home and joined the circus to become a traditional white-faced clown under the name Pete Mardo.