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Monday, October 18, 2021


By David Haberstich

October is American Archives Month! I’m celebrating it with this backstory and update to an SI Collections Blog post by former Smith College intern Kira Leinwand, published in late 2019. Kira’s insightful post, emphasizing the cultural dimensions of circus traditions, enthusiastically described some of the fascinating photographs in the NMAH Archives Center’s Dawn V. Rogala Circus Photographs and Papers, also the subject of a book entitled When the Circus Came to Town! An American Tradition in Photographs (Photographs by Dawn V. Rogala; Essays by Dawn V. Rogala,  David E. Haberstich, and Shannon T. Perich). Dr. Rogala, now a paintings conservator at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute (MCI), was an amateur photojournalist during the years of her self-assigned circus project. See Kira’s article, "The Traditional, International American Circus."

On October 24 this book was awarded the 2021 Stuart Thayer Prize by the Circus Historical Society, so this is a fitting stimulus to update the story of the collection and the book. Don Covington, president of the society, wrote in an email announcing the award, “The award is presented annually by the Circus Historical Society in recognition of superior documentation of circus history. Your book, ‘When the Circus Came to Town,’ was deemed by the selection committee to be the top entry in a crowded field of competitors.”

Early on, Ginger Minkiewicz of the Smithsonian Institution Scholarly Press expressed interest in publishing a book on Dr. Rogala’s circus photographs. At the same time Dawn was concerned about preserving her photographs from this multi-year project in a suitable repository, and engaged in discussions with Shannon Perich of the NMAH Photographic History in the Division of Work and Industry and myself in the NMAH Archives Center. We both wanted Dawn’s photographs! We easily reached an appropriate compromise. Dawn donated her original negatives, work prints, and related papers from her circus project to the Archives Center, but also prepared a new portfolio of 16” x 20” exhibition-quality prints as a gift to the Photographic History Collection, giving new life to the documentary photographs she had created decades earlier.

Dawn was available to consult on the arrangement of her archive, although it was already in a logical, meaningful order when she delivered it to the Archives Center. I emphasize her role as a congenial consultant, as I know archivists and curators with cautionary tales about allowing donors to “curate” their own collections! Dawn worked with me and Kira Leinwand, answering questions, offering suggestions, and explaining how her working methods as a photographer had informed her decisions about arrangement. Processing was completed by Alison Oswald.

Dawn, Shannon, and I simultaneously embarked on a related collaboration, the creation of the lavishly illustrated scholarly book mentioned above, for which we all wrote essays. Dawn recounted her fascinating experiences in photographing a dozen small traveling circuses over a seven-year period, “embedded” with her subjects in much the same sense that war photographers are said to be embedded with the troops they follow and photograph. Shannon wrote about Dawn’s photographs within the historical context of circus, carnival, and entertainment photographs. As Dawn’s images concentrated on circus people and their behind-the-scenes work and relationships, rather than the spectacle of circus performances as entertainment, I chose to write about her images within the context of “work” photography and its history. Her pictures vividly depict the muscle work of practice and rehearsals, of erecting and dismantling tents, training animals, and the myriad efforts of performers and other workers to create a spectacle for audiences. I also contributed a preliminary finding for the archival collection and other reference material to an appendix in the book. All three of us reviewed each other’s texts, trying to meld them into a cohesive, informative, and entertaining volume. To me, our most rewarding collaboration was the selection, sequencing, and layout of the photographs to be reproduced in the book, conducted by all three of us in several long sessions in conference rooms with large tables. We seemed to be of a single mind, with no significant disagreements.

"Kiss, Carson & Barnes Circus, 1995," by Dawn V. Rogala. Copyright © Dawn V. Rogala. Reproduced with permission. Gelatin silver print, Photographic History Collection, National Museum of American History. 

Ephemera from the Archives Center's Rogala Collection: Route Cards for Kelly Miller Circus and Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, 1995.

This archival collection contains a rich trove of information beyond the pictorial documentation, including interviews with circus performers and personnel, memorabilia and colorful ephemera, rare publications, travel itineraries, and related documents. One senses the end of an era, as most of the circuses which Dawn lovingly photographed no longer exist, literally having folded up their tents for the last time.

Our book serves as an extension of Dawn’s circus archive, as it contains her biographical commentary, observations, and fond reminiscences of her travels with the circuses. As a paintings conservator at the Smithsonian’s MCI, she employs the keen analytical eyes she developed as a documentary photographer. She also has to her credit a number of scholarly and scientific books and other publications in her field.

Now here’s the shameless plug: our book, When the Circus Came to Town! An American Tradition in Photographs / Photographs by Dawn V. Rogala, Essays by Dawn V. Rogala, David E. Haberstich, and Shannon T. Perich, is available from the usual sources, and would make a great Christmas/holiday gift!   

David Haberstich, Curator of Photography, Archives Center, National Museum of American History

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