“There is nothing more contradictory in what we see here than these ravaged faces and their worried or absent eyes. We feel uncomfortable. Everything feels doubtful or resigned. These photographs come to us, submerged in their own light, and impose figures on the way to dissolution.” So explains François Cheval, head curator of the Musée Nicéphore Niépce.

Under his directorship, and as part of her BMW residency in 2012, French photographer Marion Gronier produced this set of intense yet perceptive portraits of travelling circus performers touring Chalon-sur-Saône. Now published in book form by Editions Trocadéro, they are currently on display at Les Rencontres d’Arles.

Cheval’s useful insight is an apt description for these frontal portraits, which were taken immediately or soon after the dancers, acrobats, jugglers, trainers and tamers finished their respective acts. Apart from their costumes and make up, they are stark and mute, stripped of their expressive language. Shot in a makeshift studio, amongst the swirl of backstage ambience, the sitters are jolted out of a moment of lucidity and thrown into a strange state of abandon and bewilderment.

This instinctive understanding of photography’s point of collapse is well articulated by Gronier as she guides us through a collection of individuals who are connected by the despondency and dissymmetry in their faces. In the process, she emphatically highlights a flickering emotional terrain. In the battleground between ego and agenda, will and imagination are played out in front of the viewer.

Granted, this is very conventional portraiture that will do little to change the practice of portrait photography. But what gives the images their punch is the menacing and anxious eyes of those in front of the camera. After all, we live only in each other’s eyes, those tiny little distillations of fragility.

Glorious is published by Editions Trocadéro. For more information or to order a copy visit editions-trocadero.com

An exhibition of the works will tour to Paris Photo 2013, 14-17 November 2013. parisphoto.com