Bruce Davidson was 24 when he visited the Clyde Beatty Circus at Palisades Amusement Park in New Jersey in 1958. The photographs he took there would go on to form the first part of one of his most celebrated bodies of work: Circus, a black-and-white visual chronicle of mid-century big tops in America as the cultural phenomenon was beginning to die out.

None of the circus performers that Davidson encountered had a more profound effect on him than Jimmy Armstrong. He was “standing alone outside the tent smoking a cigarette,” when Davidson first saw him. Dressed in a tux and a top hat, he held a small bouquet of paper flowers, and “stood there pensively in the privacy of his inner thoughts.” Davidson approached him and began taking pictures. Davidson said, “he seemed to know that it was the inner moment I was drawn to and not his clown face or physical appearance.” 

Jimmy became Davidson’s way in, letting him into his private world and acting as his guide to circus life. “We became friends, although we seldom spoke to one another,” Davidson remembered. Theirs was a bond of unspoken understanding — a kind of contentment to be in each other’s company.

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