Under and over and around all of the ballyhoo, the sights and the sounds of carnival carry us away from our fears to where we confront simple, elemental risks. These present you with places—the banners and booths, the rides and the games—as a terrain of desire and risk. These images tell the story of the carnival as a site of contest and trial, the far edge of what the body can experience. They take you into the heart of the carnival, where once throbbed the pulse of every special weekend and holiday adventure. The carnival aesthetic you see here is over 100 years old, and as new as fresh paint. Those of you who cherish carnival memories will find much in here to spark a smile. And the rest will get a taste of what is still out there waiting for you.
Note: The photographs in this collection are from the Library of Congress and/or the Flickr Commons.
The American traveling carnival was born from the reckless entrepreneurialism of the turn of the 20th century, a time when the frontier had just been closed and a nation was building itself across a large continent. The carnival took on the mantle of medicine shows and circus midways and grew into the highlight of many a hot summer in most American towns. It had its day in the sun. And surely something new is ready to emerge, something not tied to the mechanical contraptions that carnivals still lug from fairground to fairground.
While many would argue that the carnival brings out only the worst in us, I would have to disagree. The American carnival midway has always shown us to be both better and worse than we imagined, at once bolder and less clever. It responds to who we are when we are not putting on our carefully managed personas. It offends us only when it shows us more than we want to see.
The carnival midway beckons us from our sequestered modern lifestyle, challenges us to give in to our physical urges and the thrill of vertiginous flight. The midway makes us all marks, suckers determined to have the last laugh, and then ending up laughing at ourselves for having such a good time getting taken. But the midway offers still more, opening up a discourse of dangerous emotions and destructive impulses. It is not just some low-rent Disneyland, but a vestige of more serious games, and of times past (and pastimes) when the self was determined more directly by physical challenges. Here is also the province of the bizarre, of giant rats and fun-house mirrors. The tragic and the erotic share equal billing in the show.
The midway takes the fetishes with which we surround ourselves and pushes them into grotesque relief. One of the last fun-dangerous places we can encounter, it saves us from modernity’s empty promises of personal safety, which have lost their significance in the face of the omnipresence of media violence. While it flounders today in tawdry obscurity, we must not lose sight of the midway, for it teaches us fearlessness. It makes us bolder and somehow better, and always gives us another chance to catch the brass ring.
These Knols delve into the heart of the carnival experience of danger, eros, laughter, and place.