Freak show portraiture and the disenchantment of the extraordinary body

Guy Charles Murrunku Kirkwood

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


This article locates Freak Show portraiture within the complex intersections between institutional photographic practice and
the visual tradition of bourgeois self-portraiture. As active agents in their own performances and promotional imagery during the late-nineteenth century American “Freak Show” performers offer insightful glimpses into the shadow archive of honorific and repressive functions of visual practice. Yet this was always a contested process, further complicated by intersecting
shifts in popular culture, the gradual separation of amusement from instruction, the professionalization of medical science, and the growing influence of eugenic racial ideas concerning bodily difference, all of which contributed to the disenchantment of the “extraordinary body.” Photographic practices played a key role as a modern technology involved in such bodily disenchantment, but it also demonstrates how Freak Show performers were nonetheless able to turn this technology to their own advantage, as they navigated shifting regimes of bodily normalcy by offering complex layers of photographic meaning against reductive discourses of bodily pathology in need of correction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)3-42
Number of pages40
JournalAustralasian Journal of American Studies (AJAS)
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2017

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