Edward J. Kelty: Circus Photographer

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus is currently on tour with its latest spectacle, Circus XTREME, and a collection of photographs coming up for auction at Swann Galleries offers a glimpse into the circus world of nearly a century ago, taken by Edward J. Kelty.


Lot 30: Celebrating ‘Ringling Golden Jubilee’ Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Combined Circus Side Show, 1933.


Collector Alan Siegel amassed this assortment of images of the Greatest Show on Earth and many of its predecessors and competitors by the inveterate photographer Edward J. Kelty.
Lot 32: circa 1925 cyanotype Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey (Combined) Circus.
Kelty (1888-1967) moved to New York City following his service in the Navy during World War I, and opened up his first studio, Flashlight Photographers. Kelty was drawn to the circus and visited Coney Island often. In the summer of 1922, he transformed his truck into a mini studio, darkroom and living quarters, and traveled across America. His panoramic views captured the performers—human and animal—associated with Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, Hagenbeck-Wallace, Sells-Floto, Clyde Beatty, Cole Bros. and other train, wagon and truck shows.
A typical day for Kelty would have him waking at dawn to set up cameras and tripods, gathering bearded ladies and sword swallowers, snake charmers and giants and shooting all morning. At times he had as many as 1,000 people in a picture. Afternoons were spent processing film and making proofs, taking orders and printing well into the night. The following day, he distributed prints, most often to circus staff and performers, before returning to his New York studio to work on his wedding and banquet photography business.
Lot 35: from a group of three panoramic photos of ladies of the circus, 1935-36.
Kelty was hit hard by the Depression, and by 1942 had cashed in his glass plate negatives to settle a hefty bar tab. He moved to Chicago and, as legend has it, never took another photograph. His extant negatives eventually made their way into a Tennessee collection of circus memorabilia. Since Kelty used Nitrate-based film, which is unstable when improperly housed, the negatives self-destructed and were disposed of.
After Kelty died in 1967, his estranged family found no photographs, cameras or negatives among his belongings—just one old lens and a union concession employee ID card identifying him as a vendor at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. There was no evidence of the man who, along with his custom mammoth-size banquet camera and portable studio, documented America’s greatest traveling circuses.
Lot 38: from a group of eight circus photographs comes this montage of Sells-Floto Circus staff.
For more on the Siegel collection, check out this recent article at the Huffington Post: Rare Photos Of What The Circus Looked Like Nearly A Century Ago