Hail to the circus photographers!

Clowns on the streets of Moscow. Source: Igor Tabakov

Clowns on the streets of Moscow. Source: Igor Tabakov

It’s not easy to photograph circus performers and performances, usually because the tricks come all of a sudden, minute by minute, and many of them are aerial these days, as part of action-filled acts. Some circus photographers are trained to shoot sports, but others, like Russia’s Igor Tabakov, just have an unusual trained eye. Tabakov is known for his shots of Moscow, which some days include objects like clowns sitting on a park bench.

By nature of definition, circus is a visual art. While text may tell one side of the story, it’s the pictures and video that tell most of it these days, the costumes, the nano seconds in which trapeze fliers zoom over their net, the faces of the children as they watch the shows, the beauty of the female performers with their exquisite bodies and their stunning faces.

Sure, there are always the behind the scenes photos, the traditional dressing room scenes, the performers heading out for their daily practices. This is all part of the circus world, the daily life that for many starts with a trip to the circus in the early morning, and ending late at night, as they leave the building to go home.

I’ve worked with Igor Tabakov for many years between 1993 and 1999. He was the photographer and I was the writer,  and I like to think that together our work displayed the intricacies and the soul of the Russian circus. His work is not only inspiring, but it captures the odd moments that define the lives of the Tsirkatchie, the slang name for traveling performers.

Moscow circus, 1990s. Source: Igor Tabakov

One day Igor Tabakov and I headed out to a clown festival held in the auditorium of a Moscow museum. I had no idea of what to expect, but upon arrival, all was clear. Clowns by the dozens, each in their custom made costumes, were milling around, bumping into old friends, catching up on clown gossip – who was working where, who was working nowhere, and who had some new trick or costume.

The costumes and make up were mind-boggling. As they explained to me, each individual costume had been carefully thought out, to bring life to their clown character and to their unique skits. They called it their, “personage,” and they put a lot of thought into their character, sometimes even years. Most seemed to have designed –and put together-their costumes themselves. The key was to invent a costume and skits that no one else had ever thought of.

It was a fun time. Igor set about shooting the clowns left and right, and I set about interviewing them. Most-if not all-of the audience were the clowns themselves, decked out in their costumes, waiting their turn to hit the stage.

They were as hilarious of an audience as they were on stage – for the most part. As several explained to me, not all clowns are happy clowns. Some are downright depressing. And Igor captured this brilliantly with his camera, taking one of my most favorite clown shots that show a pair-a happy and a sad clown – who worked together as a team.

Igor Tabakov is one of Moscow's premier, award-winning photojournalists known for his photos of everyday life, not just circus. From 1993-2014 he was the head photographer and photo editor of the Moscow Times daily newspaper, capturing the transformation of the new Russia.

Igor Tabakov. Source: Personal archive

Read more about circus in RBTH blog "Clowns in the Desert">>>

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