Past Tents: Beautiful Photos of an Old-School One-Ring Circus

Photographer Norma I. Quintana runs away with the circus.


One summer day in the late 1990s, photographer Norma I. Quintana saw that the circus was coming to town. Over the next decade, she followed the one-ring Circus Chimera as it toured California, photographing its performers, many of whom had learned their acts from their parents and were passing them onto their own kids, like the contortionist’s baby daughter below. “Their children referred to me as ‘the photo lady’ and I often helped watch them while their aerialist mothers were in midair,” Quintana recalls in her new book, Circus: A Traveling Life. But the big top is no more: Due to changes in immigration policy, the circus could no longer hire seasonal performers and workers from Mexico, and in 2007 it folded up its tent for good.

Photographs and text from Circus: A Traveling Life, by Norma I. Quintana.

Harlequin

Wheel of Destiny
 

“For a decade, I rendezvoused with James Judkins’s Circus Chimera whenever their route fell within a hundred miles of my home. I would travel for weeks each summer, often with my two young children in tow. As this circus was building its new tour, I was building a new body of work. It became a grand obsession—one that would see me grow as an individual, a mother and an artist, and result in an extensive series of portraits and this, my first monograph, Circus: A Traveling Life.”

Inner Practice
 

Yawn
 

“One day while shooting, I was asked to take a group picture as a favor. During the pose I tripped over my camera bag and fell flat on my face. Of course I was horrified. But, to my amazement, no one reacted. A tumbler came to my rescue, helped me up and dusted me off, but otherwise ignored my embarrassment. Later it was explained, simply, that in the circus falling is as natural as walking. The circus performer is raised from a young age to get up from a fall and redo the routine immediately. There is no room for embarrassment, because fear and discouragement might set in, impacting one’s life and livelihood.”

Fan and Relaxation
 

Crawling Aerialist
 

“I spent so much time photographing this series that it wasn’t long before my children and I became familiar faces at the Circus. The families of acrobats, aerialists, jugglers and dancers welcomed us with warm smiles and genuine joy on our annual returns. Their children referred to me as ‘the photo lady’ and I often helped watch them while their aerialist mothers were in midair. These mothers often watched my children while I was photographing.”

Pain
 

Cube
 

“I continue to be fascinated by the family-oriented nature of the circus, by its natural born lineage and the lifestyle of its traveling talent in and out of the ring, on and off the road.”

Tiny Contortionist