Brain Pickings

Rare Images from the Golden Age of Circus, 1870-1950

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From Ancient Egypt to Lady Gaga, or what P. T. Barnum has to do with Stanley Kubrick.

Since ancient times, spectacles and public performances have transfixed, entertained, and socialized audiences. Between the mid-1800s and mid-1900s, the American circus swelled into the largest show-biz industry in the world and Circus Day became the year’s biggest event, captivating imaginations with its marvelous minstrel shows, audacious acrobats, and crazy clowns. What made the circus extraordinary isn’t merely that it was the birth of American pop culture, the Super Bowl, Macy’s Parade, and the Olympics all rolled up into one, it’s that it created a place for outsiders to become the superheroes of their day, for women to showcase their physical strength in ways that would be socially unacceptable elsewhere, and for audiences to experience cultures from around the world long before the age of global citizenship.

The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is a magnificent volume from Taschen () exploring the circus as a living organism and a way of life, from its history and sociology to its glamor and discipline, through 650 stunning images, culled from a collection of 30,000 spanning 40 different sources, including many of the earliest photographs ever taken of the circus, as well as rare images by Stanley Kubrick and Charles and Ray Eames. More than 80% of the images have never been published, and most have never even been seen before.

The images in this book capture the entrepreneurial audacity for which the circus became famous, and also the remarkable personality and energy of its performers.” ~ Noah Daniel

Alongside the images are fascinating micro-essays that frame the photos, illustrations, and other visual ephemera in a sociocultural context, exploring everything from the ancient origins of public spectacles to how the circus paved the way for film and television.

A time-capsule of a bygone era and priceless artifact of cultural anthropology, The Circus Book: 1870-1950 is both a visual treasure for design- and photography-lovers alike, and an essential primer on understanding the evolution of contemporary pop culture.

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