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Meet Photographer Aileen Barney Whose Images Preserve the Fading Circus Industry
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Meet Photographer Aileen Barney Whose Images Preserve the Fading Circus Industry
the daring magazine
Jun 3, 2021
Location: South Orange, N.J.
This story is part of Spotlight, a series of conversations on The Daring. Every month, our editor sits down with a leading light from the world of visual storytelling for an in-depth conversation about their creative process and most moving work.

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While growing up in the circus, Aileen Barney saw the ups and downs of life in the industry and was compelled to document it. Soon, she built an intimate body of work that saves its legacy.


When Aileen Barney started photographing circus performers, she “fell in love” with getting to know them, she tells me. We spend almost two hours talking over Zoom—she in her room, walls covered in art and photographs, I huddled among a stack of books at my desk.

The circus is in her blood. Her dad, Joe Barney, conceived and produced shows for the legendary Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. “I want to carry on that legacy for him,” Aileen says, adding that her dad learned the trade from his grandfather, Gene Barney. Gene’s prolific circus career led him to appear in The Wizard of Oz as a trumpet player on the yellow brick road.

It’s a heritage that lives strong within her. It propels her creative process. As she speaks, her eyes, sharp and blue, set deep beneath her brow, ascertain rather than question. The youngest of six children, Aileen grew up traveling the country by train, surrounded by her big family and circus performers from around the world. She absorbed it all and grew up faster than perhaps she wanted because circus life can be unforgiving.

But that hardship didn’t stop her from going on to document the circus performers in her orbit, focusing more and more on her dad, Joe. She’s made intimate photographs of his life on and off stage since she was in her teens, achieving, by now, a kind of everpresence. “I want him to have these images of how incredible and special his life was,” she says. It’s a fitting goal, considering her images show the depth of an artist that far exceeds glossy highs in the limelight.

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Meet Photographer Aileen Barney Whose Images Preserve the Fading Circus Industry | The Daring
With circuses on the decline, photographs that preserve their legacy are becoming more vital. Photographer Aileen Barney talks about growing up in the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the emotional portraits she's made of her father,...
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