On the road with the carnies in 1970s America

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Randal Levenson started shooting fairgrounds in 1971 – travelling from Ottawa to Maine to visit a friend, he found he was there at the same time as the Fryeberg fair. He spent eight days photographing its agricultural and carnival exhibits and, intrigued, went on to the next fair, the last of the season, in Topsham, living in a tent in the woods opposite to be as near to the site as possible.
From there Levenson decided to shoot a book-long project on the so-called carnies, and worked on the project for the next ten years. He spent nearly all of 1974-78 on the road with various sideshows and carnivals, shooting from under a dark cloth on a large-format camera on a tripod. “I photographed freaks as normal people,” he told Vice back in 2014. “I found most to be fairly noble individuals.”
Count Nicholas’ Gorilla Show, Godding Amusements, Maumee, Ohio, 1974 © Randal Levenson
The project was published as a book by Aperture soon after it was completed – In Search of the Monkey Girl (1982). And now Joseph Bellows Gallery is showing vintage prints from the project along with work from two of his other series – Americana, recent colour work showing small-town life in the US; and Mexico, newly-printed images from his extended road trip from Mexico City to Oaxaca and back in 1974.
Born in Wichita Falls, Texas in 1946, Levenson first got interested in photography while living in Alaska in the 1960s. He attended Brown University, and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. His work has been exhibited in galleries and museums throughout North America, he has taught photography at the University of Ottawa, and he has lectured at Harvard and Brown University.
In Search of the Monkey Girl, and other work, is on show until 13 October at Joseph Bellows Gallery, 7661 Girard Avenue La Jolla, CA 92037. www.josephbellows.com
Morris, Hawksbury, Ontario, 1977 © Randal Levenson
Stripper, Fargo, North Dakota, 1976 © Randal Levenson
Inside the blow Nashville, Tennessee, 1981 © Randal Levenson
Exhibt, Medical Freakout, c. 1970s © Randal Levenson
Mark of the beast, c. 1970’s © Randal Levenson
Richard Freeman, Alive, c. 1970s © Randal Levenson
Suzy Drug Child, Ray Cammack’s Shows, Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, 1975 © Randal Levenson
Trabant, Flaxton, North Dakota, 1977 © Randal Levenson
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy