Michal Chelbin chooses subjects straight out of our myths and fairytales: acrobats, ballet dancers, dwarves and athletes. But the people who appear in this beautiful photobook are far from the enchanted, sequin-spangled stars of our imagination – these are hard-working performers from small towns, little-known troupes, and marginalized communities. They’re vulnerable – we glimpse smears of blood, sweat, bandages, bare feet and scratched chests. The look in the eyes of even the tiniest (so small she can stand in the palm of a hand) is world-weary, knowing, and oddly wise.

Chelbin’s pieces are square in format, recalling Diane Arbus in this as well as in her choice of subject. Chelbin shoots in both black-and-white and color, and there’s a subtle difference between those choices. While the monochrome pieces seem more compassionate, less confrontational (and perhaps a bit more like Arbus), the colors in the other pictures seem aggressively artificial, almost violently intense. The gaze of Chelbin’s subjects can be particularly disturbing in these images, particularly those of young girls who, though they are clearly in early adolescence (or even younger), have the bleak, blankly challenging stares of much older women.

Each photograph is carefully staged, drawing attention to the theatrical nature of the subjects’ professions. But we’re forced to wonder, just because these are pictures of performers, does that mean we’re not being voyeuristic? As spectators, are we welcome, or is our curiosity just a further form of exploitation? I’m still not sure – and I get the feeling Michal Chelbin doesn’t want me to come to easy conclusions.

A striking, compelling photobook … that will leave you wondering.

— Zoe Fargher


 Strangely Familiar: Acrobats, Athletes, and Other Traveling Troupes
by Michal Chelbin
Hardcover: 112 pages
11.2 x 9.8 in
Publisher: Aperture
ISBN: 978-1597110563
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