Norma I. Quintana’s Summers With The Circus

Art, Literature 2 years ago

Norma I. Quintana stayed with us while visiting Los Angeles for Paris Photo L.A., where she signed copies of her beautiful new photography book, Circus: A Traveling Life. She traveled with an independent, one-ring circus every summer for 10 years, chronicling the behind the scenes life on the road in black and white film. You can now purchase Norma’s stunning photographs in her small run of only 1,000 books. She joined me in a cabana during her stay to discuss her photography, the circus, and her love of ABBA.


Can you describe Paris Photo LA?

I don’t know if you know there was Photo LA, and I think that’s going down the pike, and everybody’s trying to find a market of festivals for photography, but what’s unusual about Paris Photo is that it’s more international. It’s very cool. You have the French galleries and German galleries, and it’s a lot more artful and a lot more current than the usual, “I have a gallery, I represent people, and then I start selling” vibe. I mean it’s still a lot of commerce. In addition to the galleries they have some publishers. My publisher is there- Damiani from Italy. The distributor is there, which is the DAP, the premiere art book distributor. If you do a book then you need a distributor, and that’s the distributor. They’re hosting one of the photographers that has a book signing, so I’m going to sign today at DAP.

Where can you get your books?

I have an inventory of my books, which I sell, but I encourage you to go to a bookstore and order it. It’s a small run of 1,000 books internationally. It was my preference to do a small run and I wanted it to be beautifully printed.


Tell me about photographing the circus and how that came about.

So essentially I’m self-taught, and I worked in Hewlett Packard as a career. I worked with technology. Then I moved to Napa valley. I found myself wanting to pursue my art, and I clearly knew it was fine art photography in documentary form. I’m kind of like the opposite of a street photographer. I just don’t walk around with my camera and take pictures, I really do bodies of work. So what happened was this one particular one-ring circus came to town. I never imagined I was going to continue photographing [the circus]. You can go to anything and photograph it and you get some images, but in this case I went again, and I went again, and I went again. Then I realized they were going to another city, so I followed them. Then that led to another, and that led to a season. And then the same circus would tell me when they were going to be in the area. So I chronicled their lives every summer for ten summers. And they’re from China, Russia, South America, Canada; it’s the ultimate American melting pot, and what makes it American is that it’s owned by an American, his name is James Judkins, so he decides to go around and have this circus and has always dreamt about having a circus. So I think for me, after ten years, the logical step was to do a book, which was another beast, and I wanted it to be a beautiful art book and printed beautifully. I shoot black and white film with available light so my footprint is very light. I go in and hopefully you don’t even know I’m there.


Does this circus only travel in the summer or did you only photograph them in the summer?

I only photographed them in the summer. They travel pretty much eleven months out of the year and only the west of America. They start in Hugo, Oklahoma and I don’t know if you know Hugo but it’s an actual circus city where like, famous aerialists are buried, and I think it’s because there’s a lot of land so Ringling and the others would just meet in the middle of the country and from there, they start. And I would follow them anywhere in California. It was pretty amazing.

And what’s interesting is that the circus images that I used to see in the past were glaring, depressed people, mud series, mud diaries, so what’s interesting is that when I started photographing, that’s not what I saw at all- the depressed, with soot in the hair. So I think I went in pretty open about it, to see what I saw, and there are some people obviously before me- Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Mary Ellen Mark, they came before me and they all photographed the circus, but I want to see what I see and create my own body of work.

Another reason you don’t see a lot of circus images is because, let’s say Cirque De Soleil, has total ownership over images, so it’s unprecedented that I would have access and permission to be with these people for so long, and have images that I could publish. All those other places like Ringling, it’s a brand, so you can’t print anything that you take.

What I did is I wrote a section called “Lessons From The Circus” about what I learned, and I wanted to put something that maybe someone could take with them, from the heart, about what that experience was for me and could be for anybody. And like the layers of the circus, the book is very layered. It’s printed in Italy, Italian vellum, Italian paper, I wanted it to be a very specific art book because you see so many art books out there.


Are you working on any other projects for the future?

I am actually. I have a body of work called “Forget Me Not”, and that’s also film, everything I do is film. I use a backdrop, it’s all the same backdrop, and it’s a copy of a backdrop that was used when I was photographed when I was a little girl in Puerto Rico in the West Indies. So what I do is I ask every day people to stand in front of the backdrop and I capture that. I’ve photographed Francis Ford Coppola to the beekeeper, the little beauty queen to the ice cream lady, just whoever I thought, “let’s not forget them.” That’s probably another book project. I’m also working on a project that’s currently called “Transplants.” When I do a project I always ask myself, do I have something to say? And when I do, that’s when I do it- when I feel like I can say something. So that project is formulating now, but it’s based on the need for people to understand that people need organ transplants. I’m fascinated by anatomy and all these vintage anatomy books. Again, I only shoot available light and I only either have 12 images or 24 images in my big camera.

This gallery thing is interesting; this part of the gallery scene is an interesting world because I don’t have a gallery that represents me. That’s not a goal of mine, if it happens, that’s great, but I think it’s about the work and I just see what happens and I find that people are really receiving it well.


What are you favorite albums?

I’m so old school. I love David Bowie. That’s the kind of music I like- old school. But because I’m so visual, I don’t live in the music, I really live more in images. It’s interesting. There are some people who can do both, who can work and shoot and listen to music, but I can’t do that. My senses are really tuned to vision. I’m just too busy looking… Oh, ABBA! I love ABBA.


How did you find The Farmer’s Daughter?

It was recommended by my friend’s cousin who lives here, but it’s interesting because I’ve told a lot of different friends of mine that I’m here and they all knew about the place, which says a lot, because there are so many places that you can choose and everybody says, “Oh I know exactly where you’re at!” It’s a pretty original place and I like that. It’s funny because we live in the wine country, and I don’t consider myself a farm girl, but I think I’m going to L.A., but then I go to The Farmer’s Daughter and I totally get the vibe.

It’s like the farmer’s daughter moves to the big city.

Right. It’s very, very cute, and I love the artwork on the walls.

What does “do it at the daughter” mean to you?

For me it would mean come to L.A., and if you’re going to do it, and be somewhere, do it here. I think that not everybody would get this place; I think it takes a specific kind of creative person to really, totally get it. Sometimes when people travel the place they stay is so secondary, and for me, staying in a town has to feel like a town, and this feels like a town to me, but the town that I relate to. I would never stay in a big chain hotel.