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Photo exhibit captures early days of the circus

By Walt Belcher
Published: May 22, 2013 Updated: May 25, 2013 at 12:14 PM

The photograph, “The Catch,” captures a trapeze artist in mid-air.

High above the ground, she has left her swing and is headed into the arms of her partner.

Their fingertips were just about to meet when circus photographer Frederick W. Glasier snapped this picture of the Flying Banvards in 1907.

“Snapped” may not be the right word because Glasier was working with a 20-pound, 8-by-10 view camera.

“The Catch” is one of more than 1,700 photographs of circus and Wild West show performers that Glasier took between 1899 and the 1930s.

Clowns, tightrope walkers, snake charmers, daredevils, jugglers, bareback horse riders, lion tamers, elephants, tigers, bears and just about anything that was a part of circus life came before his lens.

His black and white photographs are both stunning and haunting. And 65 of them will be on display at the Tampa Bay History Center, opening Saturday and running through Aug. 4.

“Circus! The Photographs of Frederick W. Glasier” is on loan from the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art which has the bulk of Glasier's massive collection.

“He was fascinated by the circus and had an artist eye for capturing the humanity of the people,” says Rodney Kite-Powell, curator at the center. “He has some wonderful photographs of clowns and behind-the-scene moments of circus life.”

“The photographs are rare,” Kite-Powell says. “He documented the circus when it was in its heyday.”

The exhibit also features some of Glasier's photographs of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show as well as Glasier's portraits of Native American Indians.

Not many details are known about his life and his work did not get the recognition that other photographers of his era achieved.

A former town clerk, Glasier opened a photography and art studio in Brockton, Mass., in the late 1800s. By the turn of the century, he was working with several traveling shows including Ringling Bros., the Sparks Circus, and the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show.

Among his best known photographs: a 1914 portrait of Chief Iron Tail, a star of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show; Mademoiselle Octavia (c. 1901), known as the “Yankee Snake Charmer,” and Pete Mardo (1923), one of the most popular circus clowns.

Glasier served as the official photographer for the Barnum & Bailey Circus on-and-off for three decades.

He took publicity photographs for the performers who would then sell copies to fans. But Glasier also took candid photos of ticket takers, roustabouts, cooks, sideshows, animal trainers, rehearsals, performances and more.

One of the largest photographs on display is the inside of a circus tent that could hold 12,000 people.

The exhibition was organized by the Eakins Press Foundation and co-curated by Peter Kayafas and Deborah Walk.

Also featured is a dozen vintage lithographic posters that depict the circus coming to town.


The Photographs Of Frederick W. Glasier

When: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, through Aug. 4

Where: Tampa Bay History Center, 801 Old Water St., Tampa

Tickets: $12.95 for adults; $10.95 for seniors and students; $7.95 for children age 4 to 12; (813) 228-0097 Visit