photo story

Behind the Curtains: Photos of Australia's Oldest Circus

Founded in the 1800s, the Ashton Circus still going strong. Photographer Craig Holmes shares his experience capturing its many diverse personalities.

by Rebecca Kamm
20 April 2018, 1:44am

Photo by Craig Holmes

Ashton Circus is the longest-running circus in Australia, pre-dating most others in the English-speaking world. Founded in the mid-1800s by Henry Ashton James—who was schooled in the tradition of English circuses—direct descendants of the Ashton family still tour today, operating three separate circuses across the country.

In the eighties, award-winning Queensland photographer Craig Holmes immersed himself in the Ashtons' circus environment, curious to go beyond the fanfare and capture "the human face" of its crew. We asked Craig what that was like.

Henry Ashton James. Photo via Wikimedia commons
Jonas, a "proud" performer and skilled arial gymnast. Photo by Craig Holmes

VICE: Hi Craig. How long did you spend with the Ashton Circus, and were they welcoming?
Craig Holmes: I followed the circus over three weeks as they moved camps within Brisbane. I found the circus people welcoming and sometimes a little complacent with photographers in general—it seemed they were used to being asked to be subjects with very little return for their efforts. Most of my time with the circus I felt virtually invisible; no one seemed to be bothered by my work, [so] I was left to myself to capture these images.

Two workmates. The man on the right is a tiger trainer whose baby (not pictured) had both hands bitten off by a tiger. Photo by Craig Holmes

Some performers were completely cooperative and willing to go out of their way to pose for me, inviting me back to their caravans to set up a special shot. Others were less interested and had obviously been given too much attention by other photographers in the past.

I naturally ventured towards the more willing subjects. The crew didn't seem to notice me—they thought they were of less interest to a photographer, which [actually made them] a prize for me to capture.

Camels overseeing circus staff setting up for the next performance. Photo by Craig Holmes

What were your observations of circus life during this time?
Circus people of that era [the 80s] were truly amazing characters. Some were runaways, others were fifth-generation performers. At that time, they were working with performing animals, exotics such as lions, tigers, elephants, and camels. There was a constant, deep growl of the cats in their cages, which permeated the night.

Any weird experiences?
I had an experience with the elephant, who I was warned repeatedly to avoid as she had killed before. In the total darkness backstage she crept up beside me with her trunk touching my arm, to sneak a peak through the curtains at the performance on stage. I slowly became aware of her closeness and we watched the performance together. How amazing. I enjoyed her company.

The killer elephant. Photo by Craig Holmes

The images are from the eighties but almost give off an historical impression...
The rigging of the tents and performance equipment was nostalgic: large tent poles held together with ropes and canvas. It reminded me of going to sea on a schooner, straight out of the 1700s. I captured my subjects in their environment, with low night light, on these textured and layered canvas backgrounds, so as a viewer you're taken on a journey back in time.

Jersey, a runaway performing clown, resting with production crew. Photo by Craig Holmes
"Snake Woman", who was also a camel trainer, at home with her pet carpet snake. Photo by Craig Holmes
A delighted audience. Photo by Craig Holmes
Circus crew set up the tiger cage. Photo by Craig Holmes

Of Caravans and Canvas and many more photographic works are showing in galleries and other locations across Sydney from May 5-20, as part of Head On Photo Festival 2018.