Travel

Lost Photos of Clowns from the 70s

Veteran photographer Jill Freedman gives us a glimpse of life with a traveling circus.

by Jill Freedman and Cameron Cuchulainn
May 10 2017, 3:27pm

Legendary photographer Jill Freedman has spent her career documenting the lives of people on the fringes of American society. These photos hail from her time traveling along the East Coast with the Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus in 1971. Ultimately, photos from this project were collected in her 1975 book, Circus Days . The images stand out in her oeuvre because she proofed them using "stabilization," a darkroom process that was quick and versatile for the time. For years, the location of the following stabilized prints was unknown—Freedman remembered them from editing, yet they hadn't been seen in ages and could have been lost or discarded. But working with Freedman, we unearthed these lost images so that you can see them in all of their glory.

Here is what Freedman had to say about life with the circus:

The circus is a reminder of all those trips never taken, all those wild schemes gone cold in the sober morning. It's a fragile fantasy, here today, gone tomorrow, free like we are not. Free and nameless in a world full of bills and kids and credit cards that have got our numbers.

The circus is an exuberant place, like childhood; a celebration of the joy of just being alive. It's a magic place, full of the mystery, terror, and ecstasy of childhood. It is grotesque and beautiful, strange and wondrous to behold. A place you feel more than you remember, where things imagined are as real as things happened. Preposterous things that streak too fast past the corner of your eye and get you all excited. It's a taste of the unknown, a promise of adventure, waiting for you out there where it's all happening. Towns that you know are more exciting than your own. Women who are freer, men who are richer, chocolate every day, why not. Everything's possible in the circus except acting your age and being sensible.

The circus is a noisy celebration of everything kids love—dumb jokes, offensive sounds, rude gestures, frantic activity, giddy horror, drama and courage and daring and painful beauty. It sings with the sinister energy of insane clowns. It's walking on wires, juggling balls, bouncing on nets, tumbling through air, like kids do, just to do it. Celebrating the sheer joy of doing something perfectly useless, perfectly. As though it were keeping a promise you made to yourself once that you'd never grow up. You'd never become one of Them. Just so, the circus is always the same. It never changes.

Jill Freedman's works are included in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the International Center of Photography, and George Eastman House, among others. At 77, she posts regularly to her Instagram account, and is represented by Steven Kasher Gallery, New York. In the future, Freedman intends to publish more photo books to augment the seven she has released to date, including Firehouse and Street Cops, which are featured in Cheryl Dunn's 2013 documentary on street photographers, Everybody Street .