Meeting Rolph Gobits was a bit like discovering a lost treasure. Although he has an international reputation for his travel photography, landscapes, and advertising work, his photographs of travelling entertainers have yet to be exhibited. I was allowed a peek at a selection of extraordinary images of mainly black-and-white prints of former dancers, tightrope walkers, lasso artists, and ventriloquists. In many cases, the performers seemed to know the perfect pose and seemed to relish the opportunity to captivate a new, albeit invisible audience.
Despite the proud poses, Gobits’ images are often quite melancholic and wistful. Gobit thought that this was probably because most of these accomplished stage performers no longer earning their livings as performers, having been made redundant by television, which gradually began to appear in British homes in the 1950s. Gobits began to realise that no one wanted to go to the Hippodrome to see live vaudeville anymore, so, in 1971 he became interested in photographing these remarkable people. “I went to a children’s party and my friends had booked a vaudeville entertainer. I started to talk to him — it might have been Verdini [SW: who projects duck-shaped hand shadows on the wall]”. Since that time, Gobits has spent over 30 years photographing these nearly forgotten performers.
As a child Gobits used to go to the Tuschinski, Amsterdam’s wonderful art deco movie theatre. Before the main feature, a live performer would come out on stage to entertain the audience by walking the trapeze, do some card tricks or some fancy juggling. These magical encounters had a huge impact on Gobits and he became fascinated with photography at an early age.
“I bought my first camera”, he remembers, “when I was nine – a Yashica”. With his new acquisition, he would go off to nearby Schiphol airport to find out whether his camera was really capable of capturing an image at 1000th of a second by trying to freeze the spinning propeller blades of an aeroplane. I wondered whether his parents encouraged his interest in photography. He noted that they weren’t particularly artistic but they didn’t discourage his enthusiasm for photography either. In any case, they were much more preoccupied with other things, such as working for the Dutch Underground during the Second World War.
It was only after he moved to Britain to study at the Royal College of Arts in London, Gobits pointed out, that he really “learnt how to look”. After he graduated he worked for Nova magazine and worked on many commercial assignments but always ended up returning to photographing the travelling entertainers.
Many of his subjects were (and remain) very poor, but Gobits didn’t mind the shabby Wilton carpets and the cramped bed sitting rooms of these elderly performers. He has always preferred to photograph his Vaudeville performers in their homes or somewhere nearby. The only exception being the image shot inside a small circus tent which a performer had made from striped canvas windbreaks stolen from a local beach. It seems that this performer had his heart set on establishing his own two-man circus but couldn’t afford to buy any cloth.
On the whole, however, Gobits enjoys “taking people out of their usual context”, by which he means a theatrical setting. He initially found it difficult to invite himself into people’s homes, especially some of the older women who lived alone. He relied on word-of-mouth to gain access to these forgotten stars and even managed to photograph The Vernon Sisters who lived in Potters Bar. This enigmatic shot features them wearing voluminous frilly cancan skirts which they lift up, revealing their lacy knickers. He’s not sure they’re still alive but Gobits feels that he’s capturing a disappearing world or what he describes as “a forgotten tribe”.
His collection of portraits include some very surreal scenes such as the photo of the diminutive Toulouse-Lautrec impersonator, which has the air of a curious 19th- century relic. He is portrayed here kneeling down with his shoes tied to his knees to make him seem even smaller. Some of Gobits’ portraits are quite sad, such as the one of the clown holding onto a Zimmer frame next to his bed in a nursing home. Other evocative photos were taken in a caravan park. Here, through a window we see an elderly juggler spinning plates while watching his favourite soap opera. The conspicuous absence of an audience is what makes these shots particularly poignant and affecting.
“Obviously it’s the oldest people I want to get first”, Gobits emphasises. He is determined to meet these talented people before they quietly pass away. But it should be emphasised that not everyone in these photographs is in their seventies and eighties. One particularly striking image is the one of an escape artist tied up on her living room floor. This young woman is being studiously ignored by the man in a cardigan sitting in the corner who he seems more interested in the television than in watching her escape. The incongruity of a bound woman in a suburban semitrailer gives this photograph a mischievous and engaging air. Gobits doesn’t mind teasing the viewer, and with some of his images you get the feeling you are actually watching a live performance. His approach is a combination of complex and simple, which mixes the theatrical with the everyday.
These images could be perceived as the (imaginary) result of what would happen if Angela Carter and Harold Pinter wrote a play together: with fantasy roles being played out in very ordinary spaces with no audience on hand to witness the extraordinary feats of these venerable performers. In Ropespinner, we notice that the woman in chains is gazing back at us, which gives us the feeling that Gobits has reversed our roles. We become self-conscious as viewers of people who are no longer being viewed and that we are partly at fault. This sense of loss is emphasised by the fact that many of his characters wear costumes that are endearingly and shabbily out of date. For instance, the elderly dancer, Terry Dougan, is dressed in ill-fitting tights and shoes, with no one left to applaud her.
Gobits’ photographs have the ability to capture an entire dramatic performance in one shot. For instance, take the photo of the woman striking the operatic pose as the Devil and Virgin, which is all the more astonishing because this double act is actually performed by woman in a virginal white evening dress holding a fiendish mask and black cloak. She has the tragic demeanour of Maria Callas, which suggests that Gobits manages to capture ancient myths still being acted out in mundane living rooms. He never ridicules or mocks these heroines, acrobats, and illusionists. Instead, he prefers to capture the last vestiges of this dying profession. These outstanding images make all the participants seem dignified despite their bedraggled costumes. Gobits honours everyone he photographs and it is rare to see contemporary images portray such extraordinary integrity and enchantment. Like a young child mesmerised by a conjuror at the circus, we want to ask; “how did he do that?”
Text by Siobhan Wall
©picture: Rolph Gobits