Congress of Oddities
I’ve always had a fascination with carnivals, sideshows, local fairs, and the people that travel with these shows.
We have a small local fair in our town every year in August accompanied by parades and demolition derby and fireworks and all the excitement of kids and community. I remember going to the Topsfield Fair near Boston one year and watching the young barker who stood on the stage shouting to the scattered small crowd, “Cinema 1-8-0, come on in, 1-8-0.” We walked into the inflatable movie-in-the-round, no seats, standing on the dirt floor, to see a primitive version of Cinemax. About eight people standing inside, watching some poor quality action movie that was supposed to make you feel like you were there. It did sort of get you swaying with the action. It lasted about 5 minutes, then the show was over.
Back in 1973 I went out to the fair grounds in Atlanta where every year they held “The Great Southeastern Fair”. It was one of those days when everything sort of went right photographically. I shot only one roll of Tri-X and when I processed that one roll of film I liked just about every shot. That’s a rare thing. That’s a special day.
It was a large midway with plenty of rides. Atlanta had a fairly large wooden roller coaster back then. Nothing like Coney Island or the huge hang-beneath twisters of today, but enough to give you a thrill. I went on a Sunday morning, before the fair was open. I wanted the feel of the fair without the lights and the noise and the crowds.
I wanted the feel of the fair the way the carnies see it in the off hours, before the gates open. The litter from the night before still lay on the pavement. A small crew of prison inmates swept while a guard watched and supervised. Tents sat closed, rides idle. Banners rolled and ticket booths empty. There was no smell of cotton candy or grilling sausage or diesel generators. Barkers and ride attendants and short order cooks slept in their trailers and truck cabs after being up till early morning and probably hitting a few shots and cigarettes before turning in.
It must be a really hard life. Long hours, small pay, trying night after night to get people to stop and pay money to play games that look easy but are designed to help you loose. To win a stuffed animal for a girl friend or small child. The lights and bang and clatter of the rides, the hiss of the hydraulics and rumbling of the generators. Watching people pass time after time looking for something a little more thrilling, while selling, coaxing, goading them into letting go of one more dollar. Every night for two weeks, rain or shine, then tear it all down and drive it somewhere else, only to do it all over again. A gypsy life in a caravan of amusement and fast food and con games and freaks. It’s the world of Dianne Arbus.
I walked through the midways and thought about the sideshows, the people born with deformities and the performers of the odd and bizarre. How does a girl “go ape”? How can a person hammer nails into their head? Realities of life! Born Backwards! What would these lives be like if they had not joined a freak show? Is it a comfort to travel with a band of misfits so that one feels a little less like a freak and a little more like a star. Is it an ego boost to bring in a good crowd, or just a long days work resigned to the humiliation of crowds staring and pointing and talking under their breath like you were some zoo animal. Maybe it’s just the resignation that this is a productive job and a way to earn a living in a society that would pay to look at you, but not hire you or train you for anything else.
There were a few people about that day. The guy with the wooden leg, the black woman sweeping the driveway, the souvenir man, the cook having one more cigarette before firing up the grill, and of course, the prisoner chain gang. There were kids playing inside the public restroom building and a few people tending to animals in the farm sheds. But the midways were like a boarded up ghost town. A village that would spring back into life with the chime of the noon clock. In just a matter of hours, you’d be elbow to elbow with thousands of other people. But for now, it was ghostly quiet.
I love places like this. Places of imagination, a thousand stories, of texture and shadows, and people’s lives painted on the canvases. It’s rich with Americana. It’s a story waiting for a storyteller.
All images are copyright © George Cannon / All rights reserved.