Extraordinary Photographs of America’s Forgotten Freakshows

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Exhibt, Medical Freakout, c. 1970s, vintage gelati
Exhibt, Medical Freakout, c. 1970sPhotography by Randal Levenson

Randal Levenson photographed flamboyant fairs in 1970s America, and the images are on display in San Diego now

Randal Levenson happily admits life is better spent burning rubber. “I do love the road. I just know it’s satisfying not knowing what is around the next bend, what the next encounter is,” he muses. For the Texan photographer, it has always guided him on his next adventure. It was on the road that Levenson had met a friend fighting forest fires in Alaska, and later, while driving to visit him in Maine, had stumbled across the Fryeburg Fair. This encounter proved the beginnings of his series In Search of the Monkey Girl, a decade-long project shot in the 70s, documenting the last days of America’s fading freakshows.

This month, Joseph Bellows Gallery is holding a retrospective of Levenson’s work, nearly 40 years after the last portrait in the series was taken. While slideshows have long since disappeared, in Levenson’s images the Alligator Man, Bebe Grenouille, Willie “Popeye” Ingram and the World’s Smallest Mother all jostle together amidst big-tops and flaking hand-painted signs, like surreal postcards from the past. “The Carnies had their own communities, separate from the outside world. They were typecast ‘freaks’ but in reality noble and often intelligent individuals,” he notes. Levenson’s memories of the fairs paint a motley crew at home with eccentricity, but always at the deliberation of the performers themselves. “Sideshow people are the masters of human psychology, turning the tip.” Laughing, he recalls the artifice employed. “I used to talk the blow [for Artoria Gibbons], I would introduce a woman so marked and hideously disfigured by a jealous husband, that no man would ever want to look at her. It was all part of the spiel. When the curtains rolled up, it was the Tattooed Lady.”

While the camera’s predisposition to preying on ‘otherness’ is a consistent problem, Levenson saw his subjects as simply co-workers and friends. He explains, “I photographed ‘freaks’ as regular people. Some compare me to Diane Arbus, but Arbus photographed regular people as freaks... I tried to photograph what people looked like inside, rather than the superficiality of the situation.” Levenson’s photographs are not intended to elicit sympathy; rather, they play upon human curiosity and invariably draw viewers attention to the tenacity and strength of the carnival folk. As he tells AnOther: “It is what it is. I am interested in how people solve life’s problems, after all, it kind of gives you insight into your own sometimes.”

Randal Levenson: In Search of the Monkey Girl and Other Work is at Joseph Bellows Gallery, San Diego, until October 13, 2017.