How this photographer turned her grandmother's 1940s circus films into a multigenerational project

Photographer Elizabeth Siegfried discovered her grandmother's unusual story — a treasure trove of historical circus footage — in a cabin in the woods.

Photographer Elizabeth Siegfried discovered her grandmother's unusual story in a cabin in the woods

How this artist made incredible art out of her grandmother's circus adventures in the 1940s

6 years ago
Duration 4:29
Photographer Elizabeth Siegfried discovered her grandmother's unusual story in a cabin in the woods.

After 146 years, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus are about to shut down for good (with their last show scheduled for May 21). This is the right thing to do for animals — but it's also the end of a culture that spans over a century.

In the 1940s, Elizabeth Siegfried's grandmother was there, documenting circus life as an amateur photographer. When Siegfried discovered her grandmother's footage at Oxtongue Lake, Ontario, she immediately realized the beauty and rarity of the scenes her grandmother had captured. "This is historic footage that shows a time in history that is not going to repeat itself," she says. "The circus was something very very special."

Siegfried — a photographer herself — converted the film to video and went through it frame by frame to rework the images into stills, looking for the shots she would have taken herself if she had been in her grandmother's shoes.

The resulting collection of photographs showed this past November as part of her exhibition Circus, which appropriately opened in Sarasota, Florida to a crowd of circus aficionados and descendents. As Sigfried explains in the video above made by filmmaker Claude Barnes, the project wasn't just an exploration of early 20th century circus culture — it was an opportunity for her to feel like she was making work with her grandmother. 

Keep up with Siegfried here.

Claude Barnes is an independent filmmaker based in Toronto whose work in television has earned him Emmy and Gemini nominations. For this video, he followed Siegried deep into the woods and all the way to Sarasota, Florida.

Watch Exhibitionists Sundays at 4:30pm (5 NT) on CBC.


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