Edward J. Kelty, a former US Navy man, fell in love with the circus sideshows of Coney Island in 1921. Bolstered by an extended subway line, New York's great seaside attraction boomed after 1920, and the boardwalk was lined with a parade of midgets, giants, strongmen, sword swallowers, and tattooed women. The leading entertainers, like the Lobster Boy and the Wrestling Fat Girls, pulled thousands of viewers in the summer season.
Among them, few were as entrepreneurial in spirit as Kelty. He'd trained as a photographer, but struggled to find a distinct niche before the lights of Coney Island prompted a career long obsession. He travelled the United States, capturing the performers that fueled the carnival trade (and massive shows like Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey), focusing almost exclusively on freak show portraits.
His firm, Century Photographers, specialized in small scale pictures of sideshows and built an impressive catalog in from 1925 to the dawn of the Great Depression. On such image is the group portait of clowns shown here. One clown is scary. Twenty-seven of them will make you lose your shit. Note the poor pooch bedecked in a head-to-paw leopard outfit. Kelty took this photograph about 1935 for lesser known circus Hagenbeck-Wallace.
The remaining photographs shared in this feature are unpublished before now. All illuminate both the sideshow trade and Kelty's unique style of portrait photography.
All images courtesy of Derin Bray, edwardjkelty.com.
Check out Freak Show: Awesome Circus Photography By Edward J. Kelty.