How Tim Booth Makes Photos That Look Like Pure Magic

“A circus performance is ultimately a story with its own timeline, I never set out to try to capture their story in a single frame,” says photographer Tim Booth in an interview with us. “I wanted to highlight their exceptional skills and tell my own story, catching moments that, through shape and form, I hope to elicit a reaction.” Tim has a slew of incredible stories from his project on circus performers and how he applied his studio style to the changing landscape.

If you look at Tim’s photos, something about them seems almost comic-book like. They’re photographs that resemble frames from Sin City. What’s more, the scenes capture people doing superhuman feats that require an incredible amount of skill. His use of black and white is a fascinating choice over something more muted or pastel. It makes us take the entire scene in more than drawing our eyes to certain parts. In my mind, this is an ingenious process.

The Essential Camera Gear of Tim Booth

Hmm, well essential is a tricky one as I always seem to want a lens I’ve left out of the bag! If I just had one body and lens, then I guess if I was carrying my Canon R5 and the 24-105 I know I could take most shots, despite being constantly irritated with Canon for not making the 24-105 a 2.8. I have three Canon bodies, the R5, a 5D MKIV, and a 5DSR which I keep mainly for landscapes which is pretty much what it’s made for. So when packing up I take the first two and at least 4-5 spare LP-E6NH batteries because the R5 is a thirsty beast. As for lenses, it depends entirely on what I’m shooting. For my CIRCUS project, I’ve stuck pretty much with the 24-105, a Carl Zeiss 21mm 2.8, and Canon’s 70-200 III 2.8, which I’m a big fan of. My tripod is a Really Right Stuff Versa with their BH-55 ball head, both eye-wateringly expensive but a joy to use, solid as granite, and utterly dependable.

I always carry more lens cloths and wipes than I need as well as sensor cleaners, spare lens caps (they disappear like socks in a washing machine), and a cable release which I only really ever need when I’ve forgotten it. I’ll always have a few blank model releases, pens, paracetamol, and some sheets of kitchen towel in case my kit gets wetter than I’d planned.

If I think a portrait might present itself, I’ll try and jam in my Canon 85mm f1.2, which is almost mystically wonderful but a heavy beast.

Photographer: Talk to us about how you got into photography.

Tim Booth: My Grandfather traveled a lot in the ’20s and ’30s, and whenever we visited he gave us a slide show of his various adventures, it was my first exposure to the big wide world, and I was bitten with the desire to travel and to take photographs. My father used to let me use his old Canon SLR back in the ’70s and I subsequently blew all my pocket money on film and processing. Once I’d discovered that being a photographer was actually a job, that was it, I never wanted to do anything else.

Photographer: This series has a specific look: high contrast black and white, plain backgrounds, and performers. What was the impetus behind your choices?

Tim Booth: I was actually in the midst of shooting a series of minimalist landscapes in Northumberland with the family who were at a circus training camp when it all started. I’d had a dull day out shooting while my wife and sons had been training, and when I got back to camp I was mooching about looking disgruntled when my wife suggested I shoot circus people instead. I took one of the performers out to a nearby weir I’d had my eye on for a landscape shot and got an image I was very pleased with. That was it; I was hooked.

Phoblographer: How did your creative vision for this series evolve into what we see in the final product?

Tim Booth: I was already in a minimalist frame of mind when I took the first image in the series, Destiny, and it became a natural progression from there. It was important to me that the performers were as unencumbered as possible so that wherever they were, on site or in the studio, they stood out. A circus performance is ultimately a story with its own timeline, I never set out to try to capture their story in a single frame. I wanted to highlight their exceptional skills and tell my own story, catching moments that, through shape and form, I hope to engender a reaction.

Photographer: What was the most difficult photo to shoot in this series?

Tim Booth: I think Runaway was probably the one that was the most challenging. I had wanted to shoot Kris Madden and his Cyr wheel for a while, but I’d been struggling to think of a way to keep the image simple and engaging. A Cyr wheel is a heavy beast, and the performer stands inside it and spins around on the ground – it’s more complicated than that, but that’s the gist of it. As such, I wasn’t sure how I was going to keep the image clean and simple, it needed a large area, and so the background was going to be an issue. I shot this during one of my wife’s circus training weekends, and it was actually Kris’s idea. I wanted to shoot him on a nearby hill, so I could have lots of sky behind him but knew I’d need to use some flash to fill. We started with static images, then Kris suggested rolling the Cyr down the hill and leaping after it. Now, as I mentioned a Cyr wheel is very heavy, and the hill was steep, so once it gets going, it doesn’t feel much like stopping. Fortunately, we had lots of helping hands for this one. I had one person hold the flash head off the camera, and three people lined up to try to stop the Cyr wheel hurtling down the hill and destroying my neighbor’s fences. Fortunately, we got it on the second try, which was just as well as Kris had a broken finger, so leaping madly downhill wasn’t ideal. Though, as my wife says, Circus hurts, get used to it.

Phoblographer: How do you feel this series challenged you? how did it change you as a photographer?

Tim Booth: The greatest creative challenge has been to maintain consistency in work across multiple disciplines and in multiple situations. In the studio, keeping images clean is a relatively simple process; when I’m on location though, it’s an entirely different matter. We live in a structurally very busy landscape (give me a desert any day), so it’s often been tricky to find accessible locations as well as being able to get it all together at the right time of day and in the right weather conditions. I find with every photograph I take, I always learn something, whether it’s with a technical aspect of the shoot or a purely creative one. What I found most satisfying was working with such individuals who never ceased to inspire me to come up with strong, talented visual ideas. All in all, it’s been a very rewarding creative journey that has allowed me to shoot entirely on my terms and emboldened me to trust my creative vision.

Phoblographer: Which of these performers has the most memorable story?

Tim Booth: I would have to say that it’s actually my wife, and this really isn’t some sort of nepotism. When I met her over twenty years ago, she was an actress and had been in the then-hit series This Life and done a bit of theater in the West End and the National. She was always active and tenacious, never sitting still, and started doing silks at Circus Space, now The National Center for Circus Arts in Hoxton. She’s gone from strength to strength, and despite being twice the age of most of the performers I’ve photographed, she’s past 50 now, and she continues to perform (she performed at Glastonbury and Boomtown this year). She also teaches dozens of classes every week, trains in all the gaps, developing new skills and acts that she often performs whilst singing at the same time. She’s an inspiring dynamo and a testament to the fact that you can do circus at any age. I’m pleased for her to feature in the exhibition in ‘Brace’ and ‘Cloud Dance.’

Phoblographer: What’s your goal for this series now that it’s done?

Tim Booth: I would like the exhibition to tour more; it’s already been shown in Northumberland (where it all began) and is currently at the Lighthouse, a large and beautiful gallery in Dorset’s Center for the Arts in Poole. My next step is to put the collection together in a book, a process I enjoy immensely.

About Tim Booth

Tim Booth’s instantly recognizable shooting style echoes across both his portraiture and landscape work, deceptively simple and shunning unnecessary elaboration, his photographs are often both profound and affecting. Winner of many international awards, his work has appeared in countless magazines and fine art publications and is collected worldwide. He began taking photographs with his father’s camera at the age of eight.

By time he was a teenager he’d bought his first SLR, thrown on a backpack and headed off around Europe. Infected by both travel and photography he spent several years shooting freelance features for most of the UK’s weekend magazines and newspapers in Africa, Pakistan and South East Asia. Once settled back in the UK he shot commercial, corporate and design work from his London studio whilst also pursuing personal projects. His commercial work for advertising and design agencies spans three decades.

Ever bitten by the travel bug, his first exhibition ‘Into the Light’ was shot whilst on assignments in Africa. However, it is his seminal ‘A Show of Hands’ project and award-winning book which brought him international recognition. Spanning twenty years, the collection features the hand portraits of hundreds of people whose hands are intrinsic to their contribution to the world. A Show of Hands has been featured in the Sunday Telegraph, BBC online, National Geographic, in many photographic publications and more recently was featured in a Radio 4 three-part program on hands. Both the book and the collection have received numerous international awards.

His latest collection, CIRCUS, is an ongoing personal fine art project creating powerful images of contemporary circus artists and has already received awards from the Prix de la Photographie in Paris.

All images by Tim Booth. Used with permission. Be sure to check out Tim’s website and his Instagram to see more. Want to be featured? Take a look here and see how.

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