SAM: Joel-Peter Witkin's 1987 Portrait of a Dwarf, Los Angeles, 10/15

I missed out on the golden age of carnival and circus sideshows, but I've been fascinated by them since I was a kid. Reading Ray Bradbury will do that to you. My DVD of Tod Browning's Freaks also gets plenty of screen time. So when I came upon Joel-Peter Witkin's 1987 Portrait of a Dwarf, Los Angeles, 10/15, in the first-floor contemporary collection of the new SAM, I was hooked. The bright spots seem to shine, and the darks are so black, they look like holes in the photo. It's filled with similar broken imagery: the partial horse to be worn and "ridden"; the bust with eyes blackened, then the entire face shattered; the legs of a "normal" person to the right, smeared and incomplete. Then the central figure herself, with her sideways glance—yes, she knows her picture is being taken and doesn't look happy about it. People pay money to see her and her fellow mistakes of nature, so why is this guy taking her picture now? She's standing in front of a curtain, or is it behind? I wonder what side of the curtain we are on? Is she hiding, waiting her turn to take the stage; or is she out front, with something worse, more disfigured and brutal, on the other side? Bradbury might know, but right now I'm happy just to contemplate the mystery.

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