Inside the Live Reptile Tent
Inside The Live Reptile Tent surveys a decade of work by Jeff Brouws, images that capture the vibrant energy of carnivals when in operation, and their melancholic stillness when deserted, bereft of the crowds upon which they thrive. As a teenager, Jeff Brouws would hitchhike from his family home in Daly City, California, to Whitney's Playland-at-the-Beach. He now revists his early passion for carnivals in his photographs: futurist architecture, pulsing neon signs, ghostly silhouettes, bizarre sideshows, and serpentine roller coasters.
Amusement parks and carnivals rose to prominence in America at the turn of the last century. The earliest sites were financed by mass transit companies in order to generate increased revenue during off-peak hours. The increasing popularity of these destinations, coupled with more leisure time for the work force, yielded a profitable new industry. Small-town parks and carnivals have diminished in popularity with the passing decades, replaced by larger theme parks and other entertainment venues. Inside The Live Reptile Tent preserves and celebrates these faded icons of our culture in a remarkable collection of images by photographer Jeff Brouws.
Photographs by Jeff Brouws are included in collections at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York City; The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle. Publications include Inside the Live Reptile Tent (Chronicle Books, 2001), Highway: America's Endless Dream (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1997), and Twentysix Abandoned Gasoline Stations (Gas-N-Go Publications, 1992).
The New Yorker
October 10, 2001
These photographs of carnivals and amusement parks, empty and observed at off-hours, revel in the extravagant shapes and colors of rides including the Graviton, the Hurricane, the Satellite, and the Sky-Diver. Brouws's techniques—among them long exposures that leave the midways' colored lights blurred and glowing—aren't new, but the nostalgia is sincere and, for those with a sweet tooth for carnivals, hard to resist.
Art on Paper
Jeff Brouws' photographs are often compared to the 1930s documentary work of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) photographers, as his images explore many of the same vernacular themes. His ongoing survey seeks out the quiet dramas within humble structures, amusement parks, small towns, and back roads. If his images recall the incisive documents produced by the FSA, it is due to his close study of, and affinity for, the period; a decidedly personal interpretation of contemporary American culture, a visual study of its characteristic traditions and its shortcomings.
In 1987, about the time he started to experiment with color photography, Jeff Brouws began exploring the subject of the carnival. A spring exhibition at Robert Koch Gallery showed the extended carnival series in a selection of luminous, digitally produced prints (from a LightJet printer), revealing his broad treatment of color, from the saturated early images to the more minimal works for which he has become known. Here Brouws turns his wry, subdued vision to the spectacle and nostalgia of the carnival midway. He singles out one crystalline memory at a time, each image isolating a specific detail from the larger chaos: a single figure preparing for a high dive; a solitary red bumper car abandoned in an empty parking lot; a self-serve cone sign glowing against the night sky. Even the spinning carnival rides are reduced to flat discs of brilliant color. Brouws delights in revealing the carnival's illusions — false fronts, broken-down rides, peeling paint, ridiculous signs — but he gives equal attention to the enduring spectacle, even in demise, of the carnival itself. In one image, jumbled cables snake their way across the pavement in front of an ice-cream stand, pointing to the energy that fuels the stand's brilliance.
Through long exposures, the crowds all but disappear, effectively restoring the crowds to the photographer's private space of memory. This unpopulated view serves to intensify the experience, framing the amusement park through isolated, iconic details. The result is an elegiac rendering of a subject that is more frequently regarded as faintly sinister, even grotesque. Painted signs announcing a giant rat, for instance, and the heavy male figure that sits at the entrance to the exhibit, become surprisingly poignant. The images suspend the noise, confusion, and smells, and we experience the carnival as though under glass.