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Duo DesignPhotography by Tom Johnson

Capturing a Gymnastic Duo Performing in the Nevada Desert

Tom Johnson travelled to Nevada to photograph the award-winning Jarek and Darek performing in the desert at Red Rock Canyon

Lead ImageDuo DesignPhotography by Tom Johnson

Superbly talented photographer Tom Johnson boasts that rare, golden combination of superb technical skill and a keen eye for stumbling across extraordinary people and rendering them even more so through his lens. Such skill lies in the apparent ease and confidence his subjects unanimously exude: whether we’re gazing on the adorable red haired Welsh duo that star in his project The Evans Girls, or the bronzed bodies of his latest muses, Jaroslaw Marciniak and Dariusz Wronski. 

His new work comprises a series of breathtaking images of Marciniak and Wronski (known to most as Jarek and Darek), two Polish, former National Champion hand-balancers. The pair are both 48 years old now, and their incredible strength and dedication to such an unusual art feels like a relic to former times; a Soviet callback to a love of human spectacle in an era where circuses were things of glamour, wonderment, and physiological impossibilities.

Johnson first encountered Jarek and Darek, who perform under the name Duo Design, while watching a video of them performing in front of a huge live orchestra. “I was immediately captivated by their incredible strength, skill and just how far the human body can be pushed,” says Johnson. “After that, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to meet and spend time with them.”

Jarek and Darek now live between Las Vegas and Florida, and Johnson wanted to shoot them in a way that portrayed “their incredible form in an equally breathtaking, natural environment”. In a move exemplifying the old adage about only mad dogs and Englishmen (and in this case, Polish acrobats) going out in the midday sun, it was decided the shoot would take place around noon in the desert of Red Rock Canyon National Park, Nevada.

Despite what must have been a far from comfortable shoot, the images are sublime. The performers’ muscular physiques echo the sinew and undulations of the reddish desert rock faces, their steely determination and physical prowess the perfect complement to the unforgiving and bewilderingly vast Jodorowsky-esque landscapes. In the images where we see only bodies and sky, Johnson brings an otherworldliness to each shot, rendering his subjects god-like – the only figures capable of mastering the natural environment.

The synergy and trust between the pair is born of the fact they have been training together since they were children, having met at an acrobatics school in Warsaw. “Their drive and ambition was evident almost immediately,” says Johnson. “They started competing when they were very young and, at only 16, they started performing in nightclubs in the evening whilst studying and training during the day. Competing gave the pair the chance to travel, a luxury that few could do as Poland was still deeply rooted in communism at this point) and in 1991 they won the Polish National Championships. However, due to the sport’s politics, the runners up were sent to the World Championships to represent the country.”

Following that crushing blow, Jarek and Darek travelled to New York with “next to nothing”, and after borrowing $200 from a friend, travelled to Florida and won a circus competition in Tampa. “From there, they joined a travelling circus where they performed up to five times a day, almost non-stop,” Johnson explains. They continue to travel the world performing.

For more of Tom Johnson’s work, visit Mini Title.