You’d think that fun lies with their walls of colorful stripes, but inside the bright tents is the deadly gas of sulfuryl fluoride, quietly building up to eliminate nesting drywood termites. These fumigation tarpaulins shroud houses and are common sights particularly in warm regions such as Southern California; they caught the eye of photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger when she moved there in the early 1990s, and she began stopping her car while driving around Los Angeles to photograph them. Nearly 70 images of these eye-popping structures are now published in No Circus, available through Damiani Books. They document a unique breed of architecture, one that swiftly springs up and disappears, in that temporary period transforming a distinct building into an anonymous big top; a home into an inappropriately dressed gas chamber.
As writer D.J. Waldie describes a typical tented house in an accompanying essay, “Its limits have been trespassed, its intimacy profaned, its frailty exposed. It’s a carnival spectacle. Strangers now know what’s behind every door.
“Tented, a house is disenchanted. It’s become a premature ruin. It’s no longer home. It’s a gaudy death trap.”
Steinberger’s photographs capture both the playfulness and underlying unsettling feelings of these structures. Stripes of all color combinations fill the pages of her publication, the tangerine oranges, bumblebee yellows, and candy reds starkly sticking out against the greenery and flora of California. In one image, an angular tarp rises beneath a clear blue sky, its red-and-yellow streaks appearing at home next to a crimson-painted curb and a truck with neon orange trimming. The fumigation sites are undeniably enticing in these suburban settings, stoking curiosity of the mysteries hidden beneath their glaring shells.
But they are, of course, off-limits, and rarely do humans appear in these photographs. Even the vast majority of Steinberger’s long shots exclude human life, framing these tents as isolated and intentionally avoided places. They seem to stand in abandoned settings, with just suggestions of past activity present like cars, a propped ladder, and a neighbor’s poolside, inflatable toys that comically mirror the bloating homes. Yet, while quiet, Steinberger’s images teem with tension: the colorful vinyl reveals clear ripples formed by tightly pinched surfaces or unknown draped protrusions; some swell slightly, reminding of the fatal gas hissing inside. At times, you may make out the outline of a chimney or the archway of a front door — the telltale signs that this is, indeed, no circus.
Other closely cropped photographs creep right up to the surface of the poisonous centers, centering on telling details like the clips that tightly clamp the tarps to the buildings’ walls. Often the shiny material grazes the leaves of trees and bushes, further emphasizing just how secured and restricted these homes are. Yet despite their evident restraints, these packaged sites signal to criminals a home left alone and ripe for theft. These houses are sometimes subject to break-ins, which may mean more than just the death of termites if burglars are not careful. And even more dangerous is the possibility of a gas explosion, as one California home experienced in a rare, but deadly incident from 2002. Steinberger does not focus explicitly on these hazards, but her images effectively relay that just like the circus, the fumigation tents present their own risks despite these tame, whimsical appearances.
No Circus is available through Damiani Books.