Remarkable Images Show Scenes of Sarasota and the Ringling Bros. Circus in the 1940s
Photographer Elizabeth Siegfried discovered 16mm film footage shot by her grandmother from 1927 to 1945. These scenes are now preserved forever in large-scale photographic prints. An exhibition, “CIRCUS!” will showcase these prints in November as part of Phillippi Estate Park’s 100th-anniversary celebration.
(Sarasota-Manatee) Photographer Elizabeth Siegfried is known for her self-portraits, meditative landscapes and narrative sequences. Her latest photographic series captures the intersection of her family history and the legacy of the circus.
In 2006, Siegfried discovered a wooden crate that turned out to be a box of wonder. It was filled with forgotten 16mm film footage that her grandmother, Elizabeth Chapin White of Rochester, New York, had shot between 1927 and 1945. The films’ appeal transcended nostalgia. Beyond offering touching glimpses of family history, the images testified to the power of her grandmother’s singular artistic vision. As an amateur photographer and filmmaker, Elizabeth White had an eye for action and an instinct for the significant moment. Siegfried immediately recognized her grandmother’s achievement. As they say, it takes one to know one.
The films inspired Siegfried to celebrate her grandmother’s vision with a cross generational artistic collaboration. Working from still frames in the films, Siegfried reinterpreted candid moments and enlarged them into photographic prints. These images live on in her Cards Without Words collection—a limited series of high-quality blank greeting cards.
According to Siegfried, her grandmother’s artistry had informed her own work—even before she discovered the lost film footage.
“Historically, my family has been matriarchal,” she says. “From what I’ve learned from personal experience, watching these 16mm films and listening to family lore, my maternal great-grandmother, grandmother and mother shared a solid sense of identity and positive strong will. I’ve used historical images and film footage of these women in my own work to create narratives about family, the passage of time, a sense of place, and memory. I’m constantly amazed at how similar my own photographic sensibility is to that of my grandmother.”
Siegfried, who recently moved to Sarasota with her husband, the composer James Grant, was also surprised to discover the Sarasota connection behind many of these images. Her grandparents had vacationed here from the 1920s through the 1940s. Her grandmother’s camera had captured the moments.
There was also a strong circus connection.
Siegfried’s grandmother had taken films on the family’s trips to the Ringling Brothers Circus in Rochester, NY, in 1940 and 1942. These remarkable images show scenes of equestrians balancing on backs of sturdy horses, zebras munching hay, elephants strolling the grounds with their trainers, and circus clowns cavorting for onlookers.
I had an overwhelming feeling of wonder and excitement when I found the films,” she says. “My husband and I had already fallen in love with Sarasota and had planned to move here before I discovered the film treasure. The ‘coincidence’ seemed entirely meant to be.”
Area residents can view these extraordinary images in “CIRCUS,” an exhibition presented by Phillippi Estate Park to commemorate its 100th anniversary. This exhibition, scheduled for this November, features black and white and color photographs of what early visitors to Sarasota would’ve seen on the back lot of the winter home of John Ringling’s circus.
“These prints provide a time capsule of an era when Americans were fascinated by exotic animals, the antics of clowns and high flying artists of the circus,” says Priscilla Brown, park manager of Phillippi Estate Park. “The result is a new look at the humor and glamour of Sarasota’s history with the circus. It’s a natural tie-in with the Edson Keith Mansion, where the exhibition will be housed.”
Brown adds that Friends of Sarasota County Parks will benefit from a portion of the sale of limited-edition images, prints, posters and cards from the anniversary exhibition. Funds will be earmarked for the renovation of the Keith Farmhouse, the original building erected on the estate.
“CIRCUS” will be at the Edson Keith Mansion in Phillippi Estate Park, 5500 South Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. The exhibition will be open to the public on Thursday, November 10, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Friday, November 11, 11 a.m.-3 p.m.; Saturday, November 12, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; and Sunday, November 13, noon-4 p.m.
About Elizabeth Siegfried
Elizabeth Siegfried is known for her portraiture, meditative landscapes and strong narratives. Her work has been exhibited in the US, Canada, Europe, Japan and Mexico. She taught platinum printing for 12 years at Gallery 44 Centre for Contemporary Photography in Toronto and has received numerous awards in the U.S. and Canada. Siegfried’s photographs have been reproduced and discussed in such publications as Black & White Magazine, Shadow and Light Magazine, SHOTS magazine, Schwarzweiss, La Fotografia Actual, Camera Arts, Photo Life Magazine and ARTNews. In 2008, she was one of the featured photographers on “Behind The Camera,” a television production aired on Bravo! and Discovery HD. Her first book, LifeLines, was published in 2000 and includes a literary introduction by the National Book Award Winner Andrea Barrett.
Siegfried’s work is represented in many private and public collections, including the Aaron Copland House in Cortlandt Manor, New York; Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts in Japan; Alliance Française de Toronto Collection, Toronto, Ontario; the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography in Ottawa; and the Peter E. Palmquest Women in Photography International Archive held at the Beinicke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut. Siegfried also has her work in the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art’s Feminist Art Base at the Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, New York.
In recent years, Siegfried has expanded her mode of presentation of platinum prints to include archival digital prints and wet plate collodion. For more information about Elizabeth Siegfried and Cards Without Words, visit www.elizabethsiegfried.com, www.cardswithoutwords.com and www.terminaproject.com.
CARDS WITHOUT WORDS
I am fortunate to have a family whose past generations loved taking pictures, both motion and still. My maternal great-grandfather and his son and daughter (my grandmother) were avid photographers who, living in Rochester, NY, in Kodak’s “heyday” had first-hand access to the cutting edge of photographic technology.
In 2006, at my family’s beloved summer home built by my great-grandfather near Algonquin Park in Ontario, I found a dusty cardboard box full of what appeared to be old dishes and the remains of squirrel nests. It was in this box that I discovered a 16mm film treasure. The films had been shot between 1922 and 1945 and were in remarkably stable condition. This footage, forgotten for decades, was about to share vignettes of a unique family’s life with a revealing glimpse into history. I sensed I had discovered something extraordinary. Eventually, it would prove to be the source of inspiration for several bodies of photographic-based work.
The ninety-two reels of film were transferred to digital video media and uploaded to my computer. Slowly, with the help of film editing software and plenty of time, I was able to examine each (and every!) frame and study scenes of my family’s activities during the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s. I saw locations that ranged from their year-round home in Rochester, to places in Sarasota, where the Ringling Circus spent the winter months, to the family’s two very different summer homes, one on Lake Ontario and the other a three-day’s journey north into what was then the wilderness of Canada. Through the films, I joined their busy, multifaceted lives and had the chance to “get to know” my relatives, most of whom had died well before I was born.
As a way to tell stories, I decided to capture selected film frames. Even though I didn’t film the original footage, I was able to “shoot” chosen frames to capture telltale gestures and ordinary (or not-so-ordinary) events. The process kept me in a constant state of wonder at how similar my own photographic sensibility is to that of my predecessors who took the films, particularly my grandmother. This footage, shot so many years ago, supplied a seemingly endless source of material for me to “photograph,” without having to leave my studio—an unexpected and possibly pre-destined collaboration with two previous generations of photographers in my family!
These films have provided me with fodder for two significant bodies of work. Termina, first shown at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto in 2009, is a photographic installation that tells of the dwindling of my family tree (www.terminaproject.com)—it features four large grids of 16 images each, displaying three generations of my maternal ancestors and myself. Currently in progress, the second project is called Honey’s Kodak Moments: Life in the City, The Country, The Wilds and incorporates film frames from footage shot by my grandmother (“Honey”)—it points to a woman ahead of her time, combining her keen eye with the latest photographic equipment and techniques. Three distinct layers of social activity emerge from Honey’s images, shot at her three primary living locations: urban, rural, and wilderness. Hers is a fascinating sociological story: the formal social rules of this privileged family from Kodak-era Rochester change shape with the uninhibited antics of their lives outside the city. The exhibition of Honey’s Kodak Moments: Life in the City, The Country, The Wilds will have an accompanying book with an introduction by London School of Economics Sociology professor, Dr. Michael McQuarrie.
The most far-reaching project the films have inspired is an entrepreneurial venture: “Cards Without Words” (www.cardswithoutwords.com). Featuring selected film frames on the front of each card, “Cards Without Words” is an extensive set of blank greeting cards organized into ten vintage and three contemporary collections. The ten vintage collections are called Elegant Ladies; Vintage Whimsy; Sarasota; Ringling Circus in Color; Ringling Circus in Black and White; Seasons; Gentlemen; l’amour; Up North; and Along the Way. They show various images of my family and their friends, historical snippets of the Ringling Circus winter home and behind-the-scenes performances including several in Rochester, the Ringling clowns and animals, Sarasota beach activity, my ancestors’ refined social life in Rochester, their playful yet still reserved life on Lake Ontario, and their athletic and often “mad-cap” lifestyle in the wilderness of Canada.
Balancing the vintage collections are three (and counting) contemporary collections called: Off Season; The Now; and Feline. These collections include selections from portfolios of my own contemporary fine art images.
Since the beginning of my career, the central theme of my photographic work has brought together the topics of family, the passage of time and generations and the cycles of life. I feel so lucky to have found the trove of family films that has become inspiration for further photographic work and I experience this current project, Cards Without Words, as a natural evolution of my creative path.