Children don’t dream of running away to join the circus anymore, but for some, the glamorous fiction of the ring and the sawdust-strewn reality of the backlot are as fascinating as ever.    

Photographer Peter Cawthorn Lavery is best known for his work in advertising, where his eye for mood and texture brings a sense of dignity and credibility to magazine ads for scents, jeans, luxury cars and the like. But for fifty years, Lavery has been taking regular breaks from the lucrative, but numbing, field of photography that made him famous to follow and photograph traveling circuses across the world. Circus Work, released last week to coincide with the 250th anniversary of the British Circus, collects nearly 300 photos taken of circus performers over the past fifty years.

The son of  Yorkshire miner, Lavery’s fascination with the classic traveling circus (and only that particular type, he has no interest in more exotic outfits like Cirque Du Soleil) stems from a chance encounter he had while on a summer break from Leeds Art college in the 70’s. As he explained to the Independent back in 1997:

On a visit home to Wakefield in 1970 I dropped in on a small indoor circus at the Queen’s Hall in Leeds and had a wander around behind the scenes before the performance began. I was immediately struck by the disparity between the outward exoticism – the finery, the sequined costumes, the plumes, the elaborate display – and the backstage ordinariness. At once, I was enthralled by the sounds and smell, but I had no idea the subject would capture and hold my imagination for the best part of three decades.  

The time Lavery spent following circus caravans couldn’t be more removed from the life of luxury his advertising work depicts. He followed them for months, sleeping rough if he had to. He started out using an old-fashioned black-and-white plate camera, staging shots to give them a sense of artifice that, like the unique people he was shooting, clashed with the mundanity of their surroundings.

 “What I have been trying to do, and am still trying to do all these years later,” he told The Guardian, “is to put the same kind of magic into my images that they put into what they do. And of course you see far more than just the exoticism of the ring if you bring in the backstage world.” 

And it’s contrast that kept Lavery coming back, not just in his work, but in the lifestyle they demanded.

“I have spent the rest of my career going around the world with my camera doing various advertising assignments and, if you accept that life, then you are just doing a job for someone else, to solve their problem,” he said. “So after a long advertising shoot I would need to just go off to find a circus to take some pictures. And I started to enjoy the contrast.” 

Circus Work is available for pre-order now for £45 plus shipping. The recommended retail price is £60. A selection of photographs from Circus Work is being shown in as 50 Years of Circus Portraits in the Royal West of England Academy in Bristol until June 3rd.