Noted for such bizarre panoramic portraits as the Congress of Freaks (1929), photographer Edward Kelty (1888-1967) was the Cecil B. DeMille of the circus world. From September 13 through December 1, 2002, the International Center of Photography, 1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, will present Step Right This Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty. The first museum exhibition of Kelty’s traveling circus photographs, it provides a compelling portrait of the diversity and strangeness of itinerant circus life during the ‘20s and ‘30s. With his mammoth banquet camera, which yielded negatives up to 12 x 20 inches, the New York-based Kelty directed large groups of people, in some cases over a thousand, who would pose for these spectacular images.  The exhibition is organized by Miles Barth, former curator of collections at ICP, and is accompanied by a book-length monograph on the photographer.

Edward J. Kelty moved to New York City following World War I and opened his first studio, Century Flashlight Photographers, on West 44th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues in 1922. While maintaining a professional practice, Kelty was drawn to the circus sideshows of Coney Island. These sideshows attracted thousands of people a day, who paid ten cents to gawk at a parade of midgets, giants and giantesses, strongmen and bearded ladies, fat men and women, sword swallowers, fire eaters, alligator men, and tattooed women. Many of the proprietors of the sideshows and circuses at Coney Island hired Kelty to make publicity photographs of their performers and show fronts for use in advertising and sales to the public.

Kelty’s affinity for the human oddities, novelty acts, menageries, and other unusual attractions at Coney Island whetted his passion for circus life. In the summer of 1922, Kelty loaded his cameras into a small truck he had outfitted with enough space to sleep, develop his negatives, and make contact prints, and left the city to follow the circuses that performed up and down the East Coast. By the 1930s Kelty had expanded his travels to include various cities in the Midwest, West, and eventually the Northwest. He photographed all the large train shows, including Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey, Cole Brothers, and Hagenbeck-Wallace, as well as the smaller wagon and truck shows, such as Hunt’s Circus, Sam B. Dill’s Circus, and the Silvan-Drew Motorized Circus.

His demanding schedule would begin at dawn, when he set up his tripods and cameras so he could start shooting right after breakfast. By noon he would have made as many as thirty negatives, and would spend the afternoon processing the film and making sample prints, which he showed to the performers, circus management, and roustabouts before the evening performance. After taking their orders, Kelty would return to his truck, where he printed late into the evening so that the finished prints would be ready for distribution before the circus left town for their next venue. Kelty rarely spent more than a day or two at each circus, unless he was traveling beyond New York or New Jersey, so that he could return to his studio to service his wedding and banquet business. Kelty made most of his money selling prints to the employees of the circus; he also licensed his pictures to entertainment trade publications like Billboard, Variety, and White Tops, the official journal of the Circus Fans Association of America.

The Depression took a terrible toll on the circus and on Kelty’s business. In 1929 there were thirteen railroad shows touring the United States, but by the 1933 season only three of them remained in operation. Around 1942, Kelty made his last circus photographs and moved to Chicago. Although there is little record of his life there, it is known that he worked for a time as a vendor at Wrigley Field and was a member of various professional organizations. At his death in 1967, there was little evidence of his career in photography: a few albums of photos taken in the Navy and a handful of circus prints found in his small apartment.

With the help of circus historians, former associates of Kelty’s, and members of his family, the life and work of this shadowy photographer have been reconstructed. Bringing together for the first time a substantial number of the noted Kelty images—which vividly capture the spirit and atmosphere of the big top—this exhibition offers a unique glimpse into circus history and a fascinating visual record of one of America’s favorite forms of entertainment.


 

This exhibition is made possible with the support of Alan and Gloria Siegel; additional funding was received from Barnes and Noble Publishing, Dominion, Lobel's of New York, and Chartwell Investments.

The exhibition at ICP is coordinated by Cynthia Young, Curatorial Assistant.

The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue, Step Right This Way: The Photographs of Edward J. Kelty, edited by Miles Barth and Alan Siegel and published by Friedman/Fairfax. With an introduction by Miles Barth, and an essay by Edward Hoagland, the book includes over 100 illustrations.