Photographs by Mary Ellen Mark are not included on-line. A copy of the the November 1997 edition of Texas Monthly can be ordered from the Back Issues web page.
Mary Ellen Mark doesn’t clown around when it comes to the circus. For almost thirty years the New York photographer, a certified circophile, has regarded the big top as both entertainment and subject. “It’s a universal form of theater,” she says. “It incorporates so many things—beauty, irony, poetry, tragedy.” But the elaborate, expensive three-ring extravaganzas of American culture don’t punch her ticket; instead, Mark trains her lenses on the grittiest shows on earth—small-scale, family-run operations in remote and exotic locales, such as the Circus of Hanoi, the Gorky Park Circus of Moscow, and numerous traveling troupes throughout India. These ragtag, bare-bones productions are, she believes, the true heirs to the circus tradition. (They are also similar in spirit to Texas’ small-town rodeos, which Mark photographed for Texas Monthly in March 1992.)
This summer Texas Monthly sent Mark on her latest sawdust sojourn, a working tour of eight itinerant circuses in the interior of Mexico. The project entailed a bit of detective work—most outfits are constantly on the move—and inevitably some suspicion of the American stranger, which Mark’s enthusiasm quickly diffused. “Circus people are wonderful,” she says. “Once they recognize genuine appreciation, they are very open. Besides, they have strong American influences in their acts—Batman, Captain America, cowboys, Marilyn Monroe.” After obtaining permission to shoot, Mark—whose subjects have also included heroin addicts, street kids, and mental patients—always watched a performance before returning to photograph the artists and their animals.
Ladies and gentlemen, on these pages, thirteen photographs that cut through the satin and sequins to the character of the circus folk themselves. Step right up!
American pop culture has marked the costumes and customs of Circo Franzatti’s Pipo the clown and Kimberly Crown Circus’ Marina Campa, a 78-year-old disco dancer who portrays Batman’s grandmother. The Crown princess of her father’s Circo Rolex, acrobat Miriam strikes a regal pose.
Tricks of the trained: In Mexico, even farm animals take center ring. Sister cowgirls Claudia and Maritza flank Circo Benneweiss’ Babe, named for the movie piglet. Leslie, a dog trainer with Circo d’Portugal, assembles her charges near the pup tent; Pancho the monkey rides sheepishly into the spotlight with Circo Benneweiss headliner Paul Safari; Circo Franzatti’s tall Yanko and wee Mika guarantee monkeyshines; and Guapa the elephant, of Vasquez Brothers Circus, snatches a cookie from Guillermo, her personal Tarzan.
On the flip side: Acrobats are muy popular in Mexico, and in venerable circus tradition, the profession is often a family affair. Circo Benneweiss’ Sonia doubles as a contortionist; Yared, of Circo Garzetti, shows off her spangles before starting her act; Jair, a member of Mexico’s Garcia Verti circus dynasty, rehearses for a Circo Franzatti show; and Patricia and Sonia of Circo Benneweiss add mystique with platinum wigs. opposite: Circo Garzetti’s Kilma and yared were born to the big top, just like their mother, Areli.