I was not born into the carnival and circus world. I was drafted.
After I had moved away from home and was living on my own for a few years, my father called me to come and help him with his cinnamon roll food business that traveled to fairs and carnivals. He and his new wife had bought it from a franchise in California. My father had always worked in corporate offices and wore suits every day and when the company he worked for folded, he wanted to find something entirely new. He had heard about a food concession for sale and put everything he had into it. It was a big change for him but ultimately it was a good decision. He and my stepmother worked and traveled during the summer months going to fairs and carnivals all over the country selling delicious cinnamon rolls. It was 1988 when I got the call from my dad to come and help.
I’ll admit I was hesitant to go. I had made some good friends in Miami and this would mean giving up my apartment, packing up, and hitting the road. I had always been a city kid, either in California or Florida, and the idea of traveling around to small towns across America was somehow intimidating. But I liked the sense of adventure and the idea of seeing new places and people every few weeks. So I said yes, I’d do it.
Jack, my new artist friend in Miami, thought it was a great idea for me to go out on the road. He said it was a good opportunity to get a camera and document my life out there. He said, “You’d be crazy not to.” The idea excited me and a few months before I left, I bought a camera and learned how to use it. It was a Pentax K1000 35mm film camera.
It certainly was an abrupt change of lifestyle. That first year out I slept in a sleeping bag on a storage shelf in the back of a dusty stock truck where we stored the flour and bulk cinnamon. No AC and brutal summer weather made sleeping difficult. But the life was strange and different and interesting. I took photos.
In the beginning, I felt like an outsider—an imposter among all of these hard-edged carnies with their own way of life and lingo. I was an introvert by nature and taking photos meant I had to engage with people in an honest, open, and friendly way. It was probably good for me and my drive to take pictures overshadowed my shyness. My father tells the story of how amazed he was when I first got there and asked a carny to take off his shirt so I could photograph his tattoos. That wasn’t the shy Clayton he knew.
So here I make a distinction between carnival, circus, sideshow, and fair. We traveled to fairs to sell the cinnamon rolls but carnivals and circuses were there too. I became friends with circus and sideshow people because we all worked together in these fairs. As you’re traveling and working, week after week, the lines eventually blur and it all becomes one big “Show.”
That first year out I became friendly with an Italian circus family. One day I started taking photos of them setting up the big red and white tent. They were curious about what I was up to but being show people they were quite used to being photographed and got used to me hanging around backstage. We got to know them well and their family and mine ended up becoming friends. I remember one time we were hanging out and talking after hours and they were discussing what act they could teach me to be in their circus. I couldn’t leave my dad and his business but it certainly was fun to think about.
Then there were the sideshows. These shows are not affiliated with the circus as some people might think. It’s a very separate entity and the circus folk have a bit of disdain for the sideshows. Their thinking goes that the circus people are trained, professional artists and, the sideshow people are just oddities. But the sideshows are fantastic. They feel like they’re from another time and place. In the past, sideshows heavily featured people with disabilities. That isn’t the case today and they use mostly magic tricks and illusions to entertain. The few people with disabilities that I did encounter over 30 years ago were very much in control of their own shows though. They were in charge and called the shots. To them, the joke was on the locals who found them strange and paid money to see them. They were a close-knit bunch and really looked out for each other. I got to know them by hanging out behind the tents, away from the fair crowds. On my (very short) breaks from the cinnamon roll trailer I’d trot down to the sideshow tents with my camera to see what was going on. The fairs during the day can be very quiet. It gets boring and I think the performers were happy to have someone to talk to.
One day, in a unique gesture of comradery, the sideshow people invited the circus people to a Sunday night barbecue on the closed fair lot. Typically the fair closes early on Sundays so that was the best time to have a party. The cinnamon roll people (us) were also invited. It was my charge to escort two of the beautiful circus performers, in matching new dresses, to the barbecue. They looked amazing as we walked down the darkened carnival midway, one on each of my arms, and I was probably wearing a wrinkled t-shirt. The party was fun and surreal but at the same time quite normal-seeming.
I shot many rolls of black and white film that I’d develop myself as we traveled. It was challenging to process the film out in those rough conditions but we were always moving and if I’d had local labs do it, we’d be off to the next town before I could get the negatives back.
I worked and traveled with my father for about four years. One year while on a break I visited a friend in New York City. I fell in love with it and decided to stay. Dad was not happy about it but I’d had enough of life on the road. The stacks of negatives went into a closet and sat there untouched for 30 years. I continued to do some photography but ended up with a more practical job in advertising. I always meant to get the work out and share it but time flies. The motivation to work on it again came in the form of a documentary, “Finding Vivian Maier.” If you haven’t seen it it’s the story of a woman who devoted her life to photography but never shared the work with anyone. It struck a nerve for me and as I watched, my mind kept drifting to the box of negatives deep in my closet in my East Village apartment. Vivian Maier’s work is so incredible yet she didn’t share it. Here I had a body of work that I was passionate about as well and I hadn’t shared it. It’s very different work from hers but I had always believed it had captured something interesting and personal. A few months later I pulled out my box of negatives and got to work.