Each spring, Coney Island USA, a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to preserving the past and future of Coney Island, N.Y., convenes the Congress of Curious Peoples. The 10-day gathering draws unique individuals to the group’s historic building, which features Sideshows by the Seashore on the first floor and the Coney Island Museum on the second level. The event is a collaboration of Dick Zigun, the executive artistic director of Coney Island USA, and Aaron Beebe, director of the Coney Island Museum.
The Congress of Curious Peoples is a mixture of lectures about sideshows and related phenomena by academics and live performances by some of the top sideshow acts around. The upstairs/downstairs setup provides a rare opportunity to explore the historical, artistic and political aspects of the sideshow through performances, exhibitions and films by noteworthy artists, academics and other curious people.
Michael Webster’s essay explores the dual meaning of the phrase “Curious People.” One meaning is straight out of the dictionary. The other is a euphemism for “freaks.” Some curious people are curious about curious people. Others are curious people in and of themselves. When the curious meet the curious, when upstairs meets downstairs, when cool intellect meets raw emotion, the results are often very strange.
Amy Herzog, author and professor of Media Studies at Queens College, poses in the Coney Island Museum. Earlier she had given a talk on, among other things, the relationship between immersive experience and architectural fantasy as rendered by the fantastical work of Albert Grass at Coney Island in the 1940s.
The Venerable Tsering Phunstok, a Tibetan monk speaks about Buddhist death philosophy at the Congress of Curious Peoples Symposium. The Symposium is a two day academic event featuring panel discussions on topics related to the sideshow and history of Coney Island. After his talk, Phunstok took in the sideshow and watched several performances. Among others, he saw Baron Von Geiger, who bills himself as the Worlds Strangest Strongman, sticks fish hooks in his face and swings an anchor attached to them.
Baron Von Geiger and The Illustrated Penguin, née Jason Brott. Geiger is what they call a self-inflicted freak, someone who has altered his or her looks with things such as tattoos, piercings, or body modifications. Penguin is in the born different category. He was born with severe birth defects that left him with two very short arms and resulted in him resembling a penguin in both body shape and gait. Geiger specializes in acts of self-mutilation and pain endurance. Penguin has a wide assortment of talents including tradional sideshow acts such as the Blockhead.
Evan Michelson, co-owner of Obscura Antiques & Oddities and star of the television show "Oddities." Some years Michelson gives a presentation at the Congress in which she typically presents a strange object and places it in historical context. This year she was a regular attendee there to enjoy the proceedings.
Neo Burlesque royalty backstage before the Jo Boobs Wild Women panel discussion and performances. For over a hundred years, sideshows have featured women behaving savagely and inappropriately as social and psychological curiosities. L to R: Bambi the Mermaid, Julie Atlas Muz, and Bunny Love.
The Great Fredini, one of the mainstays of Coney Island USA. Fredini, along with Bambi the Mermaid, played a leading role in the Neo Burlesque revival in Coney Island. He is also a sideshow performer best known for the Blockhead routine and he often serves as master of ceremonies for various shows.
Jelly Boy the Clown, a founding member of the Squidling Brothers Carnivolution. The Squidling Brothers act is a combination of sideshow, aerial feats, Neo-Burlesque and perverted puppets.
Jason the Illustrated Penguin looks on as members of the Cabaret of Flesh prepare for a performance.
Eak the Geek, née Edward Arrocha, is a longtime Coney Island Sideshow performer and East Village Poet. Arrocha no longer performs regularly at the sideshow, but returns each year for the Congress of Curious Peoples Alumni Weekend.
Longtime Coney Island Sideshow performers Donny Vomit and Heather Holiday bring a high level of professionalism to the standard sideshow acts, such as the Straightjacket Escape pictured here.
Knife thrower The Great Throwdini and his assistant Lana Firebird pose next to a regular at the Coney Island Freak bar on Surf Avenue.
Squidlings in action.
PHD candidate Philip Kadish poses next to a Fiji Mermaid in the Coney Island Museum before his lecture on Pinhead Races and the White Mans Burden: Racial Science and the Politics of P.T. Barnums What Is It? A Fiji mermaid is the torso and head of a young monkey sewn to the back half of a fish and covered in papier-mâché. It was a common feature of sideshows for decades.
Nati Amos the Patchwork Girl performing during Super Freak Weekend. Super Freak Weekend features performers who were born different. Amos was born with only one or two fingers, depending on how one defines "fingers."
Denny Daniels presents his traveling Museum of Interesting Things, an amusing assembly of odd and interesting artifacts from days gone by.
"It's a truly ethereal feeling, a sort of transcendence that I feel whenever I suspend. Its an experience that takes you into another place physically, emotionally, and spiritually. In a show, there was another quality to it. Something about having a crowd of people there and exposing them to something so magical yet so raw. It hurts to some degree but amongst the other emotions and the amazing things that your body is enduring, the pain gets washed away."
Les the Mentalist and Lord Whimsy on Surf Avenue, Coney Island USA, before their lecture on Fate and Chance in the context of culture and folklore, during which they also performed traditional mentalist routines.
Lana Firebird in the Coney Island Museum.
James Taylor with his favorite exhibit in the Coney Island Museum. Taylor is a regular at the Congress of Curious Peoples. He is a writer and expert on the sideshow. He publishes the "Shocked and Amazed" book series and often appears on television, radio and in other major media to discuss sideshow related topics.
Participants in the Cabaret of Flesh put hooks in their backs and play tug of war to heavy metal music.
Aaron Beebe, director of the Coney Island Museum, in the museum's Cosmorama of the Great Dreamland Fire, a 360 degree immersive spectacle in the style of 19th century cycloramas, which he co-designed.
The organizers of the Congress of Curious Peoples seek to present the history of the sideshow and its present day reality in an upstairs/downstairs format. In this photo, The Lizardman, née Erik Sprague, a downstairs performer poses in front of an exhibit of artifacts upstairs at the Coney Island Museum. Erik is a member of the self-inflicted category of freaks. He has a full body tattoo and many body modifications including sharpened teeth, sub-dermal implants and a bifurcated tongue. Erik was a PHD candidate in philosphy before leaving academia to pursue performance art full time. His act is a combination of stand up comedy and traditional sideshow acts.
Michael Webster is an American photographer and writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y. He regularly shoots for trade magazines, freelances for consumer magazines and works on personal projects that may or may not be of interest to anyone else. See more of Michael’s work at
4 thoughts on “Curious People Photography by Michael Webster”
” Curious People” do have lot to say and heard. The Coney Island USA provides the platform to express convivial mirth, exuberant talent captured. It’s true to see up’s and down of emotions when curious people are allowed/expressed them freely .