Observations: Big tops (and bottoms) in Matilda Temperley's sensual view of the circus

When you hear the word "circus", what's the first thing that springs to mind? A sad-faced, red-nosed clown? Or a La Clique-style cabaret artist who performs to a Queen soundtrack? It's probably not sex; but sex in the circus is the theme of a new exhibition by the photographer Matilda Temperley, showing in the gallery of the Coco de Mer shop in London's South Kensington from next week.

"Modern circus is a lot more accessible because it has so many disciplines. There's dance, theatre and cabaret. It's an amazing melting pot," enthuses Temperley, 29. "Circus is really sexy because all the artists use their bodies as their tools, in the same way that dancers do."

Temperley's photographs focus on physicality. There are circus artists striking dance poses, captured jumping mid-air or doing one-handed handstands as they all subtly take on an animal character, from a gazelle to a male zebra with a barely-there stripe on his arm. There is a nude black-and-white pile-up of contortionists; a trapeze and silks artist wearing a customised antique lace collar and cuffs and a series where one girl is dressed up in a selection of different circus guises.

Temperley started taking photographs professionally two years ago. The idea came after she spent several years working in tropical medicines in Ethiopia. "I grew up on a cider farm in Somerset where circus artists would stay in the orchard and pick apples in the summer. As a child I wanted to be a trapeze artist and run away with the circus," she recalls, slightly wistfully. "Then when I was working in Ethiopia I spent time with circus groups and saw the work they were doing, delivering messages to the community through circus – and I had an epiphany." Which for Temperley meant not only totally changing career paths to become a photographer, but fulfilling a childhood dream and finally starting to learn the trapeze, too. "In Somerset I hang a trapeze off a forklift truck, but in London I practise at Circus Space. Last time, I fell off and broke a couple of ribs, but I can't wait to get back to it again."

'Circus, Sex and Sensuality' will be showing at Coco de Mer (020 7584 7615; Coco-de-mer.com; Matildatemperley photography.com) from 3 June

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