Renowned as the greatest visual chronicler of the circus in the American 20th century, H.A. Atwell began his career as a diversified entertainment event photographer using magnesium flash light illumination in Chicago where he headquartered from 1900 to 1952. In 1952 he moved his studio and image collection to Sarasota, Florida, the winter home of the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Initially hired as newspaper photographer in 1900 at the Chicago Chronicle, and later the Chicago Inter-Ocean, he maintained a home studio on the side until 1910. In that year he quit the Inter-Ocean to serve as campaign photographer for President Theodore Roosevelt during his Bull Moose Party stump for the presidency. In 1912 he opened a commercial studio and gallery in Chicago, "Burke & Atwell, Theatrical, Newspaper, and Magazine Photographers." Frank P. Burke was his partner, and their studio was located at 173 Madison Street, fourth floor. A description of Atwell at work appeared in the September 14, 1914 issue of the Grand Rapids Press recounting how he photographed the play, "The Calling of Dan Matthews." He remained a significant Chicago theatrical photographer through the 1940s.
His fascination with the circus images began early; in later years he claimed to have shot his first image in 1907. He photographed wild west shows, state fairs, carnivals, and touring circuses, and his affection for circus folk became so legendary that in the 1930s any circus performer visiting Chicago would drop in for lunch or doughnuts at his studio at 54 W. Randolph. The Harry Atwell luncheon society became an institutionalized meeting at the Sherman Hotel.
Atwell's interest in the visual history of circus further expressed itself in his collecting the work of other circus photographers. His archive ranged well beyond the scenes captured by his own camera. Toward the end of his career, he donated 5,000 negatives to the Wisconsin Journal. These images eventually came to the Wisconsin Historical Society. David S. Shields/ALS
NOTES: Obituary, Milwaukee Journal (Nov. 5, 1957), 1-11; Sarasota Journal (Nov. 6, 1957). Circus photographic collection, Wisconsin Historical Society. "Take Flashlights of Scenes in Plays," Grand Rapids Press (Sept. 14, 1914), 21.