Text and images by Tyler Ensrude for Japan Exposures
In Toshio Enomoto’s series Arlequin we can see a beautiful, present-day version of the classic circus right here in the heart of Japan. Arlequin is the French word for clown or jester; sometimes also written harlequin. At first glance, it’s hard to tell when these photographs were taken. It turns out that Arlequin, photographs of the Kigure Circus, consist of various images between 1998 and 2008, much later than I had originally assumed.
Shot with either a Hasselblad or Mamiya 6, these timeless square B&W prints could easily have been from the 1950s, 60s or 70s. The lasting characterization that kept me guessing on the date could possibly be from his subject’s signature uniform. The white face, the squirting flower, the giant shoes, as well as our image of the circus altogether, the appearance of the circus clown has gone virtually unchanged over the decades.
“The clown without the face paint or the clown behind the scenes has always been a subject begging to be photographed.”
But, on the other hand, our depiction of and our fascination with the clown have taken on many forms over the past century. Our Hollywood horror provoked coulrophobia (abnormal or exaggerated fear of clowns — Ed.) and the humor we get out of the clown who has let their guard down, revealing the person he or she really is, has encompassed our overly entertained minds through out the 80s and 90s. The clown without the face paint or the clown behind the scenes has always been a subject begging to be photographed — back in the days of early photography and after seeing and listening to Enomoto’s take on the circus, that urge and attraction is obviously still alive today.
In the early and mid-twentieth century, with the popularity of photography as a way to document a life or a group of people over a period of time coming into play (i.e. Riis or Lange), we soon were able to take a subject, such as the clown, and expose it for what for what it really was from within.
Take Circus by Bruce Davidson, for example, from the late 1950s. We see portraits of clowns, unmasked, smoking, working hard and — for the first time — just being human. We see the lives of the performers and the “misfits” who loved and hated what they do. This concept of “exposure” is very similar to Enomoto’s portrayal of the circus as well.
Davidson’s images in Circus of Jimmy “Little Man” Armstrong make that book the classic that it is. He’s a small guy with the typical exaggerated clown emotions, but often, captured by Davidson, without the face paint. That was the real “Little Man”. You could even go as far to say it was one of the first times we looked at an abnormally small person as human.
Diane Arbus’s portrayal of Freaks from the 60s and early 70s did more of the same, if not more so. Her work of the short, tall, and tattooed showed us the life of the sideshow performers, who had been gawked at and treated as if they were animals for centuries. The human side of the circus had been exposed and it further fuelled our fascination and curiosity to find out who these people really are, pushing closer and closer toward the deeper, cinematic, yet all-human clown we think of today.
Much like Davidson or Arbus, Enomoto in Arlequin was able to exhume the circus for what it really is. You see the backbreaking life of the circus staff, the circus mothers and their children, the cramped quarters they’re living in, the rehearsals and performers of all kinds trying to make a living at what they do best.
But, Enomoto’s photographs seem to be slightly different. Those performers who seem to be struggling with life or seem to feel like an outcast, the ones trying to find a place in society or to remain sane in a somewhat insane setting, appear to be missing from Enomoto’s photographs. He very eloquently shows how today’s circus, behind the curtain, can be arduous, but at the same time fulfilling for the people who participate in it. They really seem to love what they are doing and, perhaps, the life in the circus, the clowns, and the “freaks” have changed more than it seems on the outside.
The circus has always been known as accepting to those not accepted in society, but nowadays, maybe, we, the audience, have changed and we have a better understanding of the truth and to who these people really are, thanks in part to the photographic exposure given to the people involved in it.
I was lucky enough to get invited to meet with Enomoto-san for a few minutes at his exhibition at the Nikon Salon Ginza. That morning, I had only sent him a quick mail in hopes he would answer a few questions the same morning and he said to come on down to Ginza again and we can talk in-person. I was taken aback a bit by his gesture of kindness to a complete stranger, but I rushed back to the Nikon Salon that afternoon to see if I couldn’t find out more about this intriguing ‘Arlequin’ photographer.
It turns out that Enomoto has a very prominent history and was quite the traveller himself in the past. His most well known series of photographs and book is called Tooi Higashi or Far East (in the literal sense) and was originally displayed at the same Nikon Salon Ginza in 1974. The photographs, from that same year, cover his trip through most of Asia in a Toyota High Ace with his friend at the age of 24. Not only are the photographs and this book an amazing recollection of his road trip, but in a way, are visions of a young man changing and growing as a photographer. The journey in itself is something to be proud of as it covered countries including Turkey, via the Silk Road routes, through the Byzantine ruins, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal.
His more recent works in Japan of Kyoto (Twilight Memories: Kyoto) and Sakura are mostly shots taken at dawn or dusk, with very little available light. Small things like the swaying of the cherry tree branches in the breeze, the stillness of the rain water after a big spring storm, the darkness of the temples in the early morning of winter and the evening quarters of the courtesan readying themselves for the night are very powerful and convey that moment he opened his cameras’ shutter so vividly. The images are usually sharp, but sometimes blurred, are all black and white and often convey strong depth, both compositionally and aesthetically. His book entitled Kagirohi or Lamp flame is an wonderful compilation of his view into Kyoto by the light of the Kagiro.
Finally, I asked him a little bit about his photographs in Arlequin. My initial impression and interpretation appeared to be right, as I had mentioned earlier, in that the circus has always been an accepting place. He said that that is one of the best things about being involved in the circus for the last ten years. He likes the sense of family the circus holds. Whether a performer is from Russia, China, Thailand or Japan, it’s all for one and one for all. He’s watched the children grow, learn from and admire their parent’s profession and even start to perform alongside them. In a way, you could say that he has been accepted into this group as well after photographing and documenting their lives for so long. He’s looking forward to seeing them grow and change even further as he continues to follow and photograph the Kigure circus today. Look for ‘Arlequin’ in print some time in the near future.
More images can be seen at Toshio Enomoto’s website.
Tyler Ensrude is a contributing photographer and writer from the U.S. currently residing in Tokyo.