America’s Last Traveling Sideshow 

The Photo Blog
Dec. 6 2013 11:46 AM

America’s Last Traveling Sideshow

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Ward Hall, Florida, 2007

Jimmy and Dena Katz

In a business in which novelty and rarity are currency, World of Wonders is its own spectacle: It is the very last touring American sideshow. When husband and wife photography duo Jimmy and Dena Katz heard about this unique group online, they were instantly intrigued. “We're always looking for American subcultures that have a very strong visual element to them that are also very honest,” Jimmy Katz said. “This is not like people dressing up for Halloween. That's what the appeal of this was to us. These are people living a real lifestyle that is outside the realm of society.”

After some initial hesitation, the folks behind World of Wonders agreed to be photographed. Subsequently, the Katzes spent three years on and off photographing the roaming troupe, traveling to spend time with them along their tour in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Florida. They captured their subjects with a large-format 4-by-5 camera, resulting in images rich with detail and striking tones that are collected in the book World of Wonders. “We wanted to make sure this was not really a documentary project in a traditional sense,” Jimmy Katz said. “We really wanted to do environmental portraits with them, using them more in a casual way the way someone would normally shoot with a Leica. We tried to get certain mix of spontaneity and formality in the images.”

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Ward and Red with a boa constrictor, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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John Johnson breathing fire, Florida, 2007

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Chris with knives, Florida, 2007

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Natalie and Beulah, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

The sideshow is an American tradition that dates back to the 19th century. As the Katzes write in their book, in the form’s heyday, more than 100 traveling sideshows toured the United States. After the 1950s, however, tastes changed and the magic of Hollywood came to usurp that of live performers. “A lot of things they do are hard to do and very dangerous, but people are used to seeing a lot more now. Big snakes and swallowing swords don't seem as spectacular as they once did,” Jimmy Katz said.

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Though World of Wonders survives, Katz said the touring life is not easy. Performers do 12 shows a day, seven days a week, and often work as many as 14 hours per day. Still, Katz said, the performers are determined to stick to a lifestyle they love—one that affords freedom and fun, as well as the unique pleasure of performing for live audiences. “This is a very hard life that they've chosen, but I think that to be in front of people and have an audience applaud for them really is what feeds them and makes them feel that it's all worthwhile at the end of the day,” Katz said.

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Chelsea with Mike Vitka, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Chris with cash, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Jimmy Long taking tickets, Florida, 2007

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Tommy Breen swallowing a sword, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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Chris, Pete, Ward, and Beulah, New Jersey, 2008

Jimmy and Dena Katz

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World of Wonders banners, Florida, 2007

Jimmy and Dena Katz

Jordan G. Teicher writes about photography for Slates Behold blog. Follow him on Twitter.