THE GROWING INTEREST IN THE GROTESQUE AND THE WEIRD SEEMS TO BE A REACTION TO OUR INCREASINGLY HOMOGENISED CULTURAL LANDSCAPE. WITH FILMS, TV AND RADIO FILLED WITH LOOKALIKE AND SOUNDALIKE CELEBRITIES, WE ARE SEARCHING FOR TRUE, AND OFTEN CHALLENGING, INDIVIDUALITY
A plethora of reality documentaries have fed our fascination with what lies beneath the surface of everyday life. We find art and beauty in the oddest places and popular culture is increasingly tainted by black humour. Designers, artists and image-makers are inspired by the surreality of everyday life and often celebrate the freaks that populate it. Photographers and artists have long drawn on the human melting pot that is today’s reality.
For more than a hundred years, the sideshow or freak show played a very popular role in American circus culture. The first organized show was PT Barnum’s Great Travelling Museum, Menagerie, Caravan and Hippodrome in 1871 when the classic freak show line-up was created – the giant, the fat lady, the midget, the three-legged boy, the armless wonder and the thin man.
During the 1920s and 1930s, photographer Edward J. Kelty took a series of photographs of members of the Barnum and Bailey freak show that inspired the 1932 film Freaks (also known as Forbidden Love or Nature’s Mistakes).
Nowadays, there are just a few such shows displaying human oddities. There are, however, plenty of opportunities to witness unusual human beings on television, with documentary series across global networks recording the lives of unusual people. It’s easy to see these programms as the new freak shows, and they are proving just as popular. Modern values dictate that the portrayal of these people leans more towards celebrating their differences than purely point-and-stare titillation.
The photographer Diane Arbus summed up this very human obsession with human oddities: “There’s some thrill in going to a sideshow. I felt a mixture of shame and awe.”
Diane Arbus was obsessive and increasingly shameless in her pursuit of American otherness and her photographs are a comment on the lure of looking, as much as her own fascination.
Arbus recognised we could all be different and paved the way for the evolution and inclusion of the freak that we see today.
Grayson Perry, Marc Quinn, Paul McCarthy, Erik Sandberg, Scott Hove
Freaks by Tod Browning, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Grey Gardens by Albert and David Maysles, David Lynch’s filmography, AHS: Freakshow, Night of the living dead by George Romero, vintage horror movies
Charles Eisenmann, Edward J. Kelty, Joel-Peter Witkin, Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon (In the American West)
1. total look Undercover fall-winter 2014/15 (undercoverism.com)
2. Scott Hove’s cake (mshove.com)
3. Grayson Perry with his Rosetta Vase
4. Tod Browning’s “Freaks”, 1932
5. total look Thomas Tait fall-winter 2014/15 (thomastait.com)
6. total look Jonathan Saunders fall-winter 2014/15 (jonathan-saunders.com)
7. Issey Miyake jacket (isseymiyake.com)
8. Diane Arbus photo
9. Detail from Alexander McQueen fall-winter 2014/15 (alexandermcqueen.com)
10. Marni lace-up shoes (marni.com)
11. Erik Sandberg artwork (eriksandberg.net)
12. Olympia Le-Tan clutch (olympialetan.com)
13. total look Vivienne Westowood fall-winter 2014/15 (viviennewestwood.com)
14. Detail from Marni fall-winter 2014/15 (marni.com)
1. Detail from Lanvin fall-winter 2014/15 (lanvin.com)
2. total look Gareth Pugh fall-winter 2014/15
3. still from The Rocky Horror Picture Show
4. Rochas shoes (rochas.com)
5. total look Comme des Garçons fall-winter 2014/15 (comme-des-garcons.com)
6. Olympia Le-Tan clutch (olympialetan.com)
7. David Lynch’s Eraserhead
8. total look Jonathan Saunders fall-winter 2014/15 (jonathan-saunders.com)
9. Gareth Pugh mirrored Pu coat
10. total look The Row fall-winter 2014/15 (therow.com)
11. Andrew Logan for Alternative Miss World
12. total look Thom Browne fall-winter 2014/15 (thombrowne.com)
13. the Albino woman from Barnum’s freakshow (maisonalbino.com)
Moodboard and text: Irene Pazzanese