In Randal Levenson’s practice, insiders and outsiders become one. His series In Search of the Monkey Girl comprises photographs of enigmatic freaks, pictures of carnies, and sideshow scenes taken from his travels across North America in the 70s. His subjects included such illustrious figures as the Man with Two Faces, the World’s Smallest Mother, Penguin Boy, Willie “Popeye” Ingram, and the iconic Artoria Gibbons. In 1982, Aperture published In Search of the Monkey Girl as a book, which featured an essay by Spalding Gray titled Stories From the 1981 Tennessee State Fair.
The pictures are now on view at La Petite Mort Gallery
, Ottawa, Canada, so we sat down with Levenson to talk about his days on the road, getting to know sideshow freaks, and being able to photograph who people really are inside.
VICE: What motivates your practice?
Randal Levenson: I am interested in how people work to solve or adapt to life’s problems. The camera has provided me with a means to enter environments where it might otherwise be difficult or impossible to interact.
When did you begin In Search of the Monkey Girl?
In 1971, I traveled from Ottawa to visit a friend who lived in Fryeburg, Maine, at the time of the Fryeburg fair. I spent the eight days of the fair photographing both the agricultural and carnival side—that is, both the livestock arenas as well as the carnies brought in to operate the independent midway. I traveled to the next fair, the last of the season, in Topsham, Maine, living in and working out of an old Sears canvas tent I set up in the woods adjacent to the fairgrounds.
From that initial encounter with fairs, I determined to work toward a book that would document the people and places I encountered while traveling from fair to fair. I soon gravitated toward the carnies and especially the sideshow part of the business. My last was the Tennessee Sate Fair in 1981. The bulk of the work was done from 1974 to 1978, when I was able to be on the road nearly full time, thanks in part to a couple of grants.
How would you describe your experience of the circus or carnival subculture?
There is no “circus” in the carnival, and carnies are generally looked down upon by circus folk. Carnies do not have much use for circus people, either. It’s a different culture entirely. In a circus, everybody is on a payroll, and most carnies except, for the roustabouts, get paid from their own independent arrangements with the main show promoter.
Inside Cassadaga, the “Psychic Capital of the World”
On the surface, Cassadaga resembles a Florida Mayberry. Set back in the backwoods between Daytona and Orlando, the little “Psychic Capital of the World,” has long been a sanctuary for mediums, healers, psychics, and just plain freaks.
The Spiritualist Camp in Cassadaga was founded in the late 1800s by one George P. Colby. Colby, a New York native and medium had been instructed by his spirit guide—a Native American named Seneca—to go to Florida and start a spiritual center. He trekked into the Central Florida wilderness in 1875 and homesteaded the land, in accordance with Seneca’s prophecy. A charter to form the Southern Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp Meeting Association was granted in 1894, and Colby acquired 35 acres. This spirit guide apparently had quite the knowledge of property rights. Over the decades, the Spiritualist Camp has grown to 57 acres. Cassadaga started as a place for snowbirds to practice their Spiritualism—a secular-minded, turn-of-the-century mish-mash of science, philosophy and religion.
Fast forward to 2013 – things have changed.
Two distinct tendencies have emerged within the Cassadaga Spiritualist Camp—the New Agers and the religious, non-profit organization charged with running the camp. Like the Jews and the Muslims in certain parts of the world, a single street separates them from each other.
The New Agers use tarot cards and stick to the Cassadaga Hotel. A stone’s throw away is the religious organization maintains the traditional belief system that Colby established in the 1800s. That’s not to say the Cassadaga Hotel and its hired psychics don’t stay true to Spiritualism as religion, but they’re a bit more relaxed about it. Its like Episcopalians and Catholics.
The Cassadaga Hotel—the only hotel in Cassadaga—is allegedly haunted. The perimeter porch with its rocking chairs and hunchbacked palm trees resemble a more Mediterranean incarnation of the Bates Motel. The hotel’s website states that the hotel has “friendly spirits”—I’m guessing this means Ghost Dad-like apparitions. The original hotel burned down on Christmas Day of 1926 and was rebuilt a year later. The inside of the hotel evokes the Roaring Twenties with its Tuscan-style furniture and speakeasy-style lobby. To the side of the lobby is Sinatra’s Ristorante, which features a piano player, full liquor bar, and Italian food. Saturday night is karaoke, but we’ll get to that later.