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‘UNTITLED’ Portrait of a Salvadoran family circus member, by Steven Laxton. 

As Stephen King, the Joker, and ICP have taught us, there’s little more terrifying than a clown going off-script. So we should be prepared for some twists and turns at the pretty yet ultimately depressing show at PhoPa Gallery, in which award-winning photographer Steven Laxton delivers a series of more than a dozen anxious, colorful stills of nomadic family circuses in rural El Salvador.

An Australian by way of Brooklyn, Laxton is a commercial and fine-art photographer who’s amassed considerable attention lately. His projects tend to fall somewhere between the poles of two basic styles: an appreciation of the human body as sculptural object (like the arresting series of tangled nudes in this year’s “Human and Urban Forms”), and a dramatic sort of portrait photography, which often condenses palpable human emotion and a vague politics of social unease into one digestible aesthetic. His photo series “Fight Club,” available online, is representative of this, depicting handsome, brooding young men standing around wearing mysteriously bruised lips and blackened eyes and ragged clothing. Bathed in moody basement lighting of muted grays and browns and completely devoid of context, they look more like underwear models than documentary subjects, and besides the obvious nod to Chuck Palahniuk, it’s never clear these scenarios existed anywhere beyond Laxton’s imagination.

That “Circo El Salvador” hits similar notes is considerably more disturbing, precisely because the context for it is much more real. The winner of the 2012 Arnold Newman Prize for New Directions in Photographic Portraiture, the series captures Laxton’s subjects, six poor rural Salvadoran families finding their livelihood in the circus, in the liminal space between their performative and real lives. Many are caked in makeup or dressed in performance garb, burrowed in ramshackle cabin trailers and perched forlornly on wooden pallets. With brilliant resolution and a narrow depth of field, their individual countenances leap out from their environments as the photographs’ true focus. Men of all ages stare blankly ahead, meeting our gaze with expressions of weariness or boredom. A young woman in a fishnet bodysuit and golden tassels sits in a messy compartment of a trailer, her eyes askance and half-smile unconvincing. None are smiling, actually, and everyone is alone. They make the argument that Salvadoran circus life is bleak and exhausting, with few occasions of genuine joy and little that holds these people together.

And that might very well be true, but the veracity of the suggestion becomes a lot more suspect as a constructed narrative, and these photographs seem eerily, unnecessarily staged. Laxton’s approach seems similar to a Hollywood film director’s, molding and tweaking his actors to fit the pre-written narrative. (With a team of makeup and lighting artists, this is hardly a secret.) We want to see them as subjects in a documentary about the inequities of the circus life in a third-world country, but they might be more accurately described as Laxton’s employees, or worse yet, props. While these people and places are certainly real, the scenes we find them in function as fine art: richly detailed, frameworthy images of mysterious people in exotic colors and settings, made more glamorous by the aesthetic of political unrest that their miseries bring to the fore. I’m sure there’s truth here, but it’s impossible to distinguish it from Laxton’s heavy-handed presentation.

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