Tuesday, August 14, 2012
Recently, "This American Life" on National Public Radio (NPR) did a broadcast episode about carnivals. It brought back cobwebs of memories. I was no older than eight. My parents imagined giving my sister and me the "Leave It to Beaver" summer family vacation experience. We traveled to Wildwood, New Jersey.
The boardwalk was the center of all life. We spent time on it every day. It was alien, dangerous but seductive. Every adventure was fraught with anxiety and anticipation. At that age, I was afraid of absolutely everything: the ocean, the dark, strangers, my own shadow. But once I survived, I continued to return because each razzle-dazzle concession was more compelling than the last. I shot my first guns at unattainable targets on the boardwalks, never winning anything. I met "best friends" I never saw again. We ran rampant on the side streets and underneath the piers. After bumping, gyrating, levitating and careening on every ride, I realized that anything was possible.
After sunset, the arcade really came to life. It lit up brighter than Xmas. The oompah-manufactured music from dueling calliopes presented an ever repeating soundtrack. They butchered sentimental favorites and top ten tunes alike. Old Suzanna never sounded so bad. I loved it. And the barkers enticed rubes by the carload to view nature's "mistakes", hidden behind forbidden doors so as not to frighten passersby. I never saw any of them. I was too young and had no money. But my imagination swears they were all real.
Subject of many novels and movies, carnivals and circuses are the backdrop for American legends. Their reputations escalate in hyperbole with each passing generation. Negative connotations embellish every rumor. A struggle between good and evil is fought inside every fairground joint. Each carnie is trained to bilk unsuspecting shills from their money. Sex is around every corner. The pitchmen are all scam artists and assemble from the most despicable reprobates, gypsies, convicts and perverts. Their spiels are folk literature that grip you just below the heart and pull you through the curtains.
Early in my career, I followed circuses for some of the same reasons. They were mysterious and insurmountable. Whereas the acts were wonderful, their nefarious existence in the wagons circled behind the Big Top was fodder for my camera. I beseeched friends who were doing marketing to get me into Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, as well as the now defunct Clyde Beatty Circus. I traveled hundreds of miles to sneak into second rate, jackpot circuses. The tackier the better.
When I was younger I found myself partying with the beautiful show girls who wore sequins and rode the elephants. I invited roustabouts back to my studio and swapped my pitiful stories with vagabonds who had experienced the expanses and byways of America.
But, the fraternity of performers was not always welcoming to interlopers like me. It was made known that they did not appreciate my presence. I was cursed, spat upon and yelled at often. But since I was only cursorily interested in what was going on under the big lights, backstage was my bailiwick. So I persisted.
Show business myth and its reality have nothing to do with each other. Once in a dirty, sweaty, florescent-lit, underground dressing room, my assistant, almost in tears, admitted that the backstage experience shattered her image of the happy fantasy (and that she had always been afraid of the clowns).
County and state fairs are another issue altogether. They are Americana. It is where the rural of 4-H clubs meets the urban of games of chance, rides and neon lights. Prized, family-pet pigs are awarded blue ribbons while teenagers puke riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Parents drag their kids back to recollect memories matching their childhoods. People do stupid things and are proud of it. They strap themselves into frightening, bone-crushing rides in the name of fun. They eat wretched foods with a smile and rubs shoulders with characters they would never talk to in their ordinary, humdrum lives. Tattoos, cotton candy and fried dough. It's concentrated nostalgia.
I teach my students studying "street photography" that if you want to break into it, you should go to places where there are lots of people gathered trying to have fun. Not only are they great sites for interesting photography, but people drop their guards and are not as suspicious of photographers. So I follow my own advice and seek out festivals as I travel around the world. I pay an admission fee and enjoy the potential energy of everything inside. Weird juxtapositions and the most diverse demonstrations of humanity are outlined under the glaring lights of the midway. Traditional, contemporary and bizarre are in close proximity. You can see the full spectrum of local society by turning in a 360 degree circle. It is unbelievable. And most often, no one minds you taking their picture.