These timeless photos of a traveling circus trigger nostalgic thoughts of a long-lost time

The tent in Pleasantville, Iowa. (Lieh Sugai)

Photographer Lieh Sugai’s images of a traveling circus are timeless. I was immediately taken in by the photos when I first saw them because they transported me somewhere far away from the present turmoil I feel that has taken over during this pandemic time. They provide a much-needed respite during this great upheaval. They comfort me, if that makes any sense.

Sugai’s images of the Culpepper & Merriweather Great Combined Circus are the kind of images that transport you into a kind of fantasy world. For me, at least, when I look at this project all kinds of memories come to the surface, reminding me of another time and place. Then again, maybe they are dovetailing into a state of mind I’ve found myself in over the past few weeks.

I’m slated to have pretty invasive surgery (pulmonary endarterectomy) in the next couple of weeks, and this has colored my perceptions about pretty much everything. No doubt this is partly what has plunged me into looking back into my past to take comfort in familiar things. For example, I’ve been watching movies that remind me of when I was a young boy, surrounded by the warmth and security of the love of my family — not yet thrust into the world and life that is made up of so many ups and downs, challenges, victories and defeats

When I immerse myself in Sugai’s beautifully wrought black-and-white vignettes of trapeze artists, clowns and ringmasters, they take me to a similar place. There’s something comforting about looking backward, to a perceived “simpler time.” But of course, I know that times were never really “simpler.” Perception can be misleading. But sometimes you just have to roll with it.

That’s one of the wonderful things about photography, though. The author can put it all out there and then the audience takes it and, in a sense, makes it their own. Sometimes, when you create something or tell a story, it takes on a life of its own. And I, certainly, have assigned a narrative to this work that may not be true. And, I think, that’s okay. It is one of the things that draw me to this work. Maybe the same is true for you. I hope it is.

But let’s get down to the nitty-gritty for just a second. What does Sugai say her work is about? In a statement provided to In Sight, here’s what Sugai said:

“As a Japanese photographer living in America, I am interested in interrogating the cores of both of my cultures — cores that are permanent, unchanging, nostalgic, and in a mysterious way, true. Against the backdrop of our digital age, Culpepper & Merriweather represents an unchanging core in American culture, occupying a nostalgic space that persists alongside the mainstream.”

After reading this, I think my response to the work isn’t totally out of place. I’ve definitely responded to the nostalgia and to that “unchanging core in American culture.” I’ve also made up stories in my head about the work that may just come from my own “baggage.” This is what good storytelling does, in my opinion. It opens the viewer up to multiple possibilities. Sugai was propelled to examine something about both her own culture and American culture, which gave rise to a series of images that created multiple possibilities for me, and you, too.

In Sight is The Washington Post’s photography blog for visual narrative. This platform showcases compelling and diverse imagery from staff members and freelance photographers, news agencies and archives. If you are interested in submitting a story to In Sight, please complete this form.

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