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December 30, 2023

Amazing Photographs of Jimmy Armstrong “The Dwarf” at Clyde Beatty Circus in Palisades, New Jersey in 1958

Jimmy Armstrong was billed as the “Little Man” on circus flyers that were handed out in a tent show in New Jersey where photographer Bruce Davidson first made his acquaintance. Recalling their meeting Davidson wrote, “His distorted torso, normal-sized head, and stunted legs both attracted and repelled me. He was half my height and I felt a certain power over him. He stood before my camera sad and silent.”

Bruce Davidson is a major figure in what might be called humanistic photojournalism, having produced a number of brilliant studies over a long career. His book ‘Circus’ collects photographs of three different circuses taken over a decade. The first and by far the most poignant is Clyde Beatty’s in 1958, in the waning days of traveling Big Top circuses. His focus wasn’t so much on the show-business side as on the prosaic reality of the lives of the circus folk. The first section of Davidson’s book in particular delves into the life of Jimmy Armstrong, dwarf-clown of the Beatty circus.

In many of Davidson’s photographs of Jimmy we see him alone, applying his makeup, smoking a cigarette or waiting to go into the ring, with that sad clown face painted upon his own. Sometimes he is almost lost within the frame in the very corner of a photograph, but in others he fills it entirely, his gaze directed straight into the lens.

“He was standing alone outside the tent smoking a cigarette,” when Davidson first saw him. Dressed in a tux and a top hat he held a small bouquet of paper flowers, and “stood there pensively in the privacy of his inner thoughts.” Davidson approached him and began taking pictures. Right from the off, he said, “he seemed to know that it was the inner moment I was drawn to and not his clown face or physical appearance.” Jimmy became Davidson’s way in, letting him into his private world and acting as his guide to circus life. “We became friends, although we seldom spoke to one another,” Davidson recalled. Theirs was a bond of unspoken understanding – a contentment to be in each others company that didn’t need excessive words.

In some pictures, we see him interacting with his audience and laughing with children. There are painful moments too; in one photograph, he eats a sandwich alone at a diner, as a group of men look on from another table. In another, he walks ahead as a group of teenagers laugh along behind him. These are the uncomfortable realities of the ‘freak show’ status Jimmy was forced to endure, and it’s important they are shown.

The pictures emit a loneliness that speaks of an isolation implicit in the fact of his being a dwarf, and hence always to some degree an outsider. But Jimmy had acceptance here, a family here, and earned a wage to live a life for himself here, and Davidson wanted all of that experience to transcend the photographs too.

(Photos by © Bruce Davidson | Magnum Photos)


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