Although freak shows are no longer a thing, they haven’t really disappeared from our collective imagination. Photographer Randal Levenson was one of the last to document this tradition in a very profound way.
There’s something undeniably appealing about the whole aesthetics of the circus and the so-called freak shows that still makes us want to see anything related to it. From movies to the most recent season of American Horror Story, we can’t deny that this particular tradition still allures us. The thing is, and the reason these shows were extremely successful for decades, that it appeals to our morbid curiosity of noticing differences in others, which at the same time, makes us feel “normal” in the society. Freak shows appealed to the dehumanization of individuals, the segregation of society’s outcasts, and the reflection of our own normality on others.
So, shows like AHS or anything that appeals to this not-that-extinct tradition are highly successful because instead of just showing us “freakness” or abnormality to entertain, it shows us the humanity within these people. More importantly, they make us wonder whether we should be the ones who are exposed in that way. The photos below respond to that discourse in what might be one of the first artistic works addressing the matter under this lens.
Taken by the now iconic photographer Randal Levenson, the series In Search of the Monkey Girl delves into the everyday life of these performers. During the seventies, Levenson spent about a decade on the road in an attempt to document the last traces of freak shows and traditional carnivals in the United States. As he used to say, he “photographed freaks as normal people” because he “found most to be fairly noble individuals." His black-and-white photographs expose that humanity and kindness through their expressions, even when they’re still portrayed with the spectacle of the circus behind.
Playing with our inherent morbid curiosity, Levenson captures the essence of these characters not to make us feel compassion or pity, but to highlight their unique personality aside from whatever physical trait they were hired for. However, besides that, Levenson’s interest in carnivals and freak shows was mainly focused on the sense of community they had. They might have been neglected by society, but their unique traits made them feel like part of a family. Being left out made them strong and smart to the point that through their performances they were able to spark something inside the minds of the audience. As Levenson used to say, “sideshow people are the masters of human psychology.”
You can see more of Levenson’s work on his official website: Randal Levenson
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Cover photo: Dark Ride Roughie (1974)