Quote and Credit

Quote and Credit


Monsters of the Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas. Eisenmann Book Review from the Past #2

I am not going to open a debate on the appropriateness of circus sideshow freak photographs. To be sure they are among the most striking of images and these photos were taken so the performers could sell them for a dime each to the audience...so who can begrudge the process? 100 years later Diane Arbus took similar photographs, but rather than being used as souvenirs or trade cards, they made her career. Never one to shy from the disturbing, overlooked or neglected, I am attracted by the taboo of these images, and they still manage to make the desperate attempts of contemporary artists to "shock" pale by comparison.

Continuing to review books which have been forgotten or deserve another look, this is the fairly obscure "Monsters of the Gilded Age: The Photographs of Chas. Eisenmann" by Michael Mitchell. Published in Canada in 1979, and likely a small edition, it is expensive today on the used book market but available.

Despite the author's intensive research, more is known about the performers shown than the photographer. Eisenmann worked with his wife on the Bowery in New York City for ten years and specialized in theatrical portraits. He then turned the studio over to Frank Wendt, (a photographer I am profiling and intend to publish a book on before long) then vanished. By 1904 he was gone. What IS known remains in the photographs, sharp, crisp, perfectly posed and lit pictures of some of the most remarkable humans ever captured by camera.
Mitchell describes the environment of the working portrait photographer in the Cartes de visite and Cabinet Card era (Eisenmann worked in both) and produces a 110 page book with an example of the artist's work on nearly every page. Each performer is identified and discussed thoroughly, and while it might not be a book you will leave on the coffee table, it certainly will attract interest if you choose to share it.

The book is out of print unfortunately, and though it was reprinted with a slightly different title in 2003, I can only find used copies for sale. Images by Eisenmann turn up on ebay frequently and many have been reproduced on the web.

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