The collection of 1412 images can be accessed via the Libraries' CONTENTdm server and is fully searchable by keyword, subject, and image number. The item level inventory of the collection (in Excel) can help with formulating searches and sorting.
The Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann photographs includes the work of Eisenmann, Frank Wendt, and others specialized in creating and marketing photographs of circus sideshow and dime museum performers in New York City during the latter part of the 19th century.
Eisenmann was born in Germany in 1850 and emigrated to the United States some time before 1870, settling in New York City. At an early age, Eisenmann established a photography studio in the Bowery. A lower class area that was the hub of popular entertainment, the Bowery was known for its cheap photographic galleries and dime museums. Here Eisenmann discovered his clientele. Dime museums were modeled on P.T. Barnum's American Museum on Broadway which exhibited various human "curiosities" as well as many unusual and questionable "scientific" exhibits. Similar in many respects to the circus sideshows, these museums featured human "freaks" who displayed their odd physiognomies and performed before gawking visitors. To help these performers market themselves, Eisenmann and his successor Frank Wendt supplied them with small photographs that they could sell or distribute to publicists. Precisely why Eisenmann was drawn to and focused on this peculiar clientele is not known, though there was evidently money to be made, as other
Among Eisenmann's subjects were the famous as well as obscure. They included the "father" of the sideshow, P. T. Barnum, and performers like General Tom Thumb, Jo Jo the Dog-faced Boy, the Wild Men of Borneo, Annie Jones the Bearded Lady, and the Skeleton Man. He also photographed Siamese twins, giants, dwarfs, armless and legless "wonders," albinos, tattoo artists, and even abnormal animals, such as two-headed cows. While many of these "freaks" were genuine, many were not, having been created out of the imagination and costuming talents of sideshow managers.
Eisenmann's career in New York began to decline around 1890, and in 1899 he relocated to Plainfield, New Jersey. Wendt joined Eisenmann during this period, at first becoming his business partner, and then son-in-law. Around this same time the warm-toned albumen print process began to disappear, and to be replaced by the cooler silver gelatin process. The change in process did not favor Eisenmann's techniques. Wendt furthermore lacked Eisenmann's technical skill, resulting in a noticeable drop in the quality of their output by the end of the century.
The images have figured in research on disability studies, dwarfism, microcephaly, albinism, tattooing, "human zoos," obesity, medical history and health, and the culture of amusement in late 19th-century America. Recent publications that have reproduced images in the Becker Collection include the International Center of Photography exhibit "Foreign Body: Photographs and the Prelude to Genetic Modification" (New York, 2002), Charles Martin's White African-American body (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2002), and Margot Mifflin's Bodies of Subversion: Women and Tattoos (Juno Books, 1997; rev. 2001).
Images from the Becker Collection have also been incorporated into Web sites such as the Disability History Museum. A simple Internet search for "Eisenmann photographs" will demonstrate how extensive public interest in his work and unusual genre have become.
The most common method of photography during the 1870s and 1880s was the wet plate albumen process. Albumen prints are characterized by a warm sepia tone that distinguish them from later silver gelatin prints. Eisenmann's images are noted for particularly being sharp, clear, and well-posed.
The most common formats were cartes de visite and and cabinet cards. These consisted of an albumen print mounted on stiff board with advertising notices printed on the back. Cartes de visites were most popular from about 1860 until 1885, when they began to be replaced by the larger cabinet cards. Both cartes de visites and cabinet cards could be mass produced, were easily affordable, and could be conveniently collected into albums or shared or traded with friends. The advantages of these popular formats helped Eisenmann establish his peculiar niche in the early decades of commercial photography.
The verso of many of Eisenmann's photographs contained his characteristic tagline, "extra inducements to the theatrical profession," which reflected the emphasis he placed on his primary clientele. In addition to photographing his own subjects, Eisenmann also printed negatives shot by other photographers for publications like the New York Clipper. This "copy work" increased later in his career and was commonly performed by his successor, Wendt.
For more information about the collection, please contact the Special Collections Research Center
Albinos and albinism