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Thursday, 9 September 2010


19th century cartes de visite of circus performers

“Most people go through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're aristocrats.”
Diane Arbus

Rosalia Griffray, circus fat lady, J Plessix, Lisbon, C1860s

The marriage of General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren in February 1863 was good for Mathew Brady. The photographer sold some 25 000 cartes de visite of one image alone, not to mention the dozens of others he’d taken of the two dwarves and could reprint. It was also good for less scrupulous studio operators who bought the carte, re-photographed it and sold it on for much less. The wedding was one of the biggest social events of the year and though we can proffer explanations for that – America was in the second year of the Civil War, people needed levity – one seems so obvious that all others can be passed off as asides. Circus freaks fascinated people. Customers paid good money to stare at a giant, a fat lady or Siamese twins. Just why is a question with so many possible answers, most of which we already know, that to pursue it is pointless. Suffice to say; in the 1860s the circus freak was a commodity with its own extended market. Photographers were just one section that stood to make money from the exhibition.

Commodore Nutt and Minnie Warren, probably copy of E Anthony original, C1860s

As commodities went, the carte de visite of the circus exhibit was reliable, the evidence for that being the number still circulating today. Mostly they followed exactly the same format as for actors. The performer wore a costume and fronted the camera to leave no doubt who or what they were. A midget or dwarf, ideally dressed in some form of livery, might stand next to a table or chair just to give a sense of proportion. That was an important detail. Such staging reinforced the idea the circus exhibit was a performer first, an outcast after that. 

Circus performers, Bradley & Rulofson, San Fransisco, C1870s

Whether there were people who actively built up collections of circus freaks and what kind of people they were are probably the two most interesting questions. Were they like collectors of Civil War photos today who measure the value in their collection by its scope and detail, or were they more like collectors of erotica who lust (yes) after the single image and often make no distinction between art and pornography? Possibly, but they could also be more like modern day collectors of 19th century ethnographic images who can see the colonial racism built into the image, reject the principle behind it yet acknowledge that’s a point that makes the photograph so compelling. There are records from the mid 19th century of people collecting medical photos, which tended to emphasize the most grotesque examples of a disease’s manifestations; vaguely aware that what they were doing crossed the boundaries of good taste. There were also popular sub-genres, CDVs of executed criminals for example, which were openly displayed in shop windows. The evidence indicates that in the mid 19th century people were generally inured to the macabre in photography. The circus freak was a curiosity and a moderate one at that.

Circus midget, De la Chaproniere, Calais, C1870s

In August 1883 the New York Times reported that circus exhibits in the US were attempting to form a trade union. The Freaks Protective Union demanded a fixed pay rate and hours (some were being exhibited for 16 hours a day, seven days a week), in other words, much what every union was demanding for its members. The author couldn’t resist an attempt at humour, noting that the only people not asking for three meals a day were the living skeletons and wondering what a protest march through the streets would look like. The most interesting detail in the article was that certain exhibits were being denied membership. Circassian ladies, tattooed people, anyone who could manufacture their image would not be admitted. Even a small and hermetic fragment of society had its hierarchies. It also indicates a certain defensive insolence on the part of circus exhibits who were there because of some genetic malfunction. Theirs was in the end an exclusive club. Those body artists who attempted to get in by applying ink to their skin or frizzing their hair were mere pretenders. They were like the nouveau riche attempting to hobnob with the aristocracy. 

One legged castanet player, T A Naumann, Liepzig, C1860s

Whatever progress the union made, it appears to have lost the interest of newspapers and the public soon after.  Photographs of circus performers never did. By the late 1960s, early 1970s, when the idea of exhibiting circus freaks became socially unacceptable, the curiosity value in old photographs started to kick in. People discovered that scattered among the portraits of middle class Europeans in their top hats and hoop skirts lay other images that cut away the idea of a staid and prim society. Today the carte de visite of the circus midget or the fat lady in every bit as desirable as it was when it was taken.

Siamese twins, T A Beach, Ohio, C1870s


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