After moving to Los Angeles in the late 1990s, photographer Randi Malkin Steinberger started noticing a strange phenomenon. Sometimes, while driving down a quiet neighborhood street, she’d find a row of houses interrupted, unceremoniously, by what looked like a big, bright circus tent.
What may have appeared to be the first signs of some cheerfully unhinged suburban dystopia, in fact, had a much more practical explanation: the tents were covering houses being fumigated. They are a familiar sight for Angelenos, Steinberger soon found, and over the course of a decade she came across hundreds of them driving around the city. In her new book, No Circus, she collects over 60 photographs capturing the houses temporarily shrouded in colorful tarpaulin.
As writer D.J. Waldie describes in an introduction to the book, the fumigation tents are common in places like Southern California and western parts of the United States, where termites breed easily in warm climates. The tents tend to be colored with sunny yellows, tangerines, bright blues, emerald greens, and reds, and they’re typically striped; in some cases they have been sewn together from strips of tarp that agriculture fumigators use to cover rows of fruit trees. Often, the colors or stripes serve a functional purpose, indicating a specific pest control company in a visual language that only those companies understand.
Steinberger says she began to learn these things as the series progressed, but at first she was just struck by how the tents provided such vivid backdrops for the plants in the front or back lawns. “I was intrigued by the effect of the stripes in the wildlife,” she says, pointing out one photo of a blue and grey tent behind a field of bright red poppies. “It made such a beautiful color composition.”
Steinberger started carrying her camera with her wherever she went so she could capture the tented houses whenever she came across one. Fumigation usually only takes about three days, so she could never be sure that the house would still be covered when she returned. Some homeowners hire security guards to watch over their houses–the windows are often left open–in which case Steinberger shot from the street. But if no one was there, she would often walk around to the back of the house to try to get the best shot.
Part of the challenge of the series, and the appeal, was the fact that the circumstances were so fleeting. “It became like a game,” Steinberger says. At one point, she says, she thought about going to a fumigation company headquarters and following the trucks out to find the best tents to photograph, but in the end she liked coming across them on her own. It made her coincidental compositions–like the book’s cover photo, where the stripes on the truck in the foreground matches the stripes on the tent–that much sweeter.
Over time, she built up a diverse collection of buildings. She came across enormous apartment complexes, and even a church with a steeple poking out of the top of the tarp. Friends began to send her alerts when they found the tented houses on their drives home. But the best ones were always a surprise. “Part of the fun was that I would only happen upon them,” she says.
[All Photos: Randi Malkin Steinberger]