Steven Laxton, “La Union, El Salvador,” 2011
Steven Laxton, “La Union, El Salvador,” 2011
The black-and-white scheme of the Maine Media Workshops' gallery and store is currently enlivened by a warm splash of color and circus atmosphere. On view is a small selection of images from Steven Laxton's series "Circo El Salvador," for which he received the 2012 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, among several other awards and inclusions in publications worldwide. The show will later travel to PhoPa Gallery in Portland.

Born in Australia and currently living in Brooklyn, Laxton took the photographs in 2011 during two trips to rural El Salvador in search of nomadic circus families. These circuses play central roles in the cultural life of many rural communities under constant threat of gang or drug-related violence. The type of show they offer differs widely from what we may be used to and is described by the artist as "more akin to gypsy street theatre cum burlesque cabaret of days gone by."

Laxton's series as a whole features six different circuses whose members basically do everything, from setting up the tent and creating the costumes to performing. However, the selection on view does not include images of any performances but rather focuses on the families outside the circus ring. Some of the men, women and children are wearing makeup and costumes, others practice or just hang out. While they are not in front of a paying audience, they present themselves with the confidence of practiced performers. Laxton's intimate portraits convey his subjects' passion, pride and commitment through gazes and poses. While squalid, temporary living conditions and cheaply handmade costumes give the images poignancy and indicate the sacrifices the families have to make, they seem to be living their dream. There is a definite sense that they are also aware of the important role they play within El Salvadorian rural society.
The subjects and their environment are one thing, the photographer's formal treatment of them is another, as much as they, of course, go hand in hand. Laxton's photographs are not strictly documentary, as he clearly imposes his own vision on his subjects. In general, the performers are heroicized through camera angle, static posture, and a shallow depth of focus. Mystery is added to their world through light streaming behind the subjects into the interiors they occupy. The overall color palette is weighted toward subdued but warm reds and pinks.

The image of a young man, whose facial expression is hard to make out against the version painted on his face, is suffused with lens flare that mirrors the strings of light behind him. The toddler in clown costume, with pigtails and a lollipop, is just too adorable, shot from a low vantage point, monumentalized, set against a circus tent as backdrop. These formal treatments, and the kitsch aspect of colorful makeup, glittering costumes and fishnet outfits, are sometimes hard to reconcile with the photographer's serious intent. He is actively participating in the drama and performance of these families, imbuing his images with theatrical visual effects, as if he too assumed the aesthetic of the circus, the burlesque. And maybe that is where empathy is located in these images. As viewers, we cannot but adopt the same vision, which makes us not see these families of circus performers as different, but instead diminishes the distance between them, the photographer, and us. As potentially problematic as Laxton's formal treatment of his subjects could be, ultimately he uses it as a highly successful means to bring his point across, to make viewers understand as much as we can.