This exhibition features the work of two photographers, Jill Freedman and Randal Levenson, who entered the world of traveling entertainers—circus (for Freedman) and carnival (for Levenson)—in the 1970s. Their images reveal the distinct sensibilities each brought to their projects and offer a glimpse of what life was like on the road with the circus and carnival.
For photographer Jill Freedman (American 1939-2019) the allure of the circus was one of wanderlust and the possibility of “packing up your tent and slipping into the night” in a world where the possibilities of true freedom felt increasingly foreclosed. The plucky photographer traveled with the Beatty-Cole Circus, documenting the “backstage everyday life of this ancient, closed society and the people who live in it” at a time when the traveling circus as a way of life was dying out. Freedman’s black and white images are gritty and offer up the tattered and hardscrabble aspects of life on the road, but she also homes in on the personalities and sense of community at the heart of circus life.
Randal Levenson (American, 1946-2022) also went on the road, but he documented the unique world of traveling carnivals and sideshow performers beginning in 1971. Not merely a spectator, Levenson also immersed himself in the life and day-to-day work of the itinerant carnival, working alongside carnies to hammer in stakes and raise tents. In contrast to the grainier documentary approach that Freedman took, Levenson used a larger format camera on a tripod, posing his subjects and creating more formal compositions rich in tonalities, textures, and vivid details of his experiences.
Jill Freedman’s photographs are part of The Ringling’s permanent collection and those by Levenson are generously leant by his widow, Rustin Levenson.
This exhibition is curated by Christopher Jones, Stanton B. and Nancy W. Kaplan Curator of Photography and Media Art.