CNN Photos

Living under the big top

The Circus Chimera is the ultimate melting pot, said photographer Norma I. Quintana, who spent 10 summers following the company as it toured small towns on the West Coast.

Quintana met families from all over the world, including China, South Africa and Russia. Most were immigrant families who had passed down acts from generation to generation.

“The parents get them accustomed as children,” Quintana said.

She saw parents lift their children to help them get used to heights, and they would practice splits as part of a daily routine. The parents would also make little costumes for their children — even if they weren’t performing — to get them used to wearing the outfits.

“They were always in an RV, and I would see children playing and stretching, and the parents would make it fun,” Quintana said.

Quintana followed the one-ring circus from its start, when owner James Judkins founded it in 1998. Year to year, the circus would hire different acts. You might see one family for a few years before they moved onto another circus.

Other larger circuses carefully control their brand and hide the performers as they prep or live their daily lives, Quintana said, but Circus Chimera wasn’t like that.

“It felt like home in the back,” she said. “They were with their children, having cookouts, repairing costumes. This experience that was very different from the others.”

Quintana always shot on black-and-white film with natural light using a medium-format camera. As a mother working in a creative field of her own, she connected with the mothers of the circus, who worked around not having baby sitters.

“They had the ability to strap their kids in the stroller, do these death-defying acts, then put on their shoes and return to the trailer,” Quintana said.

She said she saw an arc in everyone’s lives while traveling with them. They would meet their spouses, have a wedding ceremony and host a baby shower all under a big top — just likely not all in the same small town. Quintana said if you asked a child where he was born, he might say Paris, meaning Paris, Texas.

Some children went through phases and didn’t want to be part of the circus, but they come back, Quintana said. She asked one young man if he was leaving, and he replied: “What would I do? All I know is the circus.”

Quintana said “it’s the same experience all of us would if we were in a family business and on the road and don’t want to be. They might miss a year, but then I’d see them come back. It’s not like they leave circus and get an office job.”

Other black-and-white works, by legendary photographers such as Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark and Diane Arbus, portray the circus as a bit gritty or dreary, Quintana said. She didn’t see it as a depressing life path. She focused on the humanity and commitment to family among Circus Chimera performers.

“I wouldn’t say it’s not hard, but what’s harder? Being on road with your family, or being on road for international business and leaving your family behind?” she said. “Family is paramount, and you could see that for them.”

- Lauren Russell, CNN