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  Charles Eisenmann

Charles Eisenmann is believed to have been born in Baden-Wuttemberg, Germany on October 8, 1850 (although some historians list his year of birth as 1855). Like many immigrants, many details of his childhood were sadly lost along the way, although it is believed the original spelling of his surname was 'Eisenman.' He settled in New York City around 1870, and officially opened his first photography studio six years’ later. He relocated to a two-story building at 229 Bowery in 1879, which forever changed his portrait subjects. The Bowery was a lower-class East Side enclave that catered to nickel-and-dime entertainment curiosities. Mr. Eisenmann, his wife (who was also his assistant), and their young daughter settled into the tiny living quarters upstairs while stocking the first-floor gallery with the latest equipment. He began specializing in theatrical and show business portraits, developed a "quick as a wink" instant photo process.

Through his Bowery studio, Mr. Eisenmann became acquainted with legendary showman and circus impresario P. T. Barnum, whose human oddities or 'freaks' were a popular exhibit at his American Museum. The two businessmen worked out a business agreement where Mr. Eisenmann would photograph the anatomically unique performers so they could hand out or sell small photographic cards of themselves to promoters or the public. Mr. Eisenmann photographed these individuals respectfully, in the same tasteful portrait settings he used for his more elite clientele. Mr. Eisenmann employed the aesthetic painting techniques of the Dutch Masters in his portraiture, manipulating lighting and depth to accentuate the pose and attire of the sitter. Mr. Eisenmann found a lucrative market with his portraits of such popular Barnum performers as Myrtle Corbin ('The Four-Legged Woman') and Annie Jones ('The Bearded Lady').

By 1884, Mr. Eisenmann's business became so successful that he was able to open a studio on the more respectable 14th Street in Manhattan and able to move his family into a comfortable suburban home. He was by now the most prolific of all 'freak' photographers, and even scored a professional coup by having P.T. Barnum himself sit for him in 1885. Like all crazes, the public's fascination with freak shows began to wane, and by 1890, Mr. Eisenmann moved his family and business to Plainfield, New Jersey. Frank Wendt became his business partner and later his son-in-law. When the warm tones of albumen printing began being replaced by the cooler silver gelatin process, it was, for the photographer, an end of an era.

Seventy-seven year-old Charles Eisenmann died on December 8, 1927. Not surprisingly, Frank Wendt became his successor, but he lacked his father-in-law’s keen artistic eye and technical precision. Therefore, subsequent portraits lacked the quality and attention to visual detail that characterized earlier works bearing the Eisenmann name.

2013 Art of the Beautiful-Grotesque (URL:

1988 Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), pp. 286-.287.

2013 Gotham Patterns: Original Images (URL://

2002 Monsters: Human Freaks in America's Gilded Age : The Photographs of Chas. Eisenmann (Toronto, Canada: ECW Press), p. 17).

2013 Monstrosity: The Human Monster in Visual Culture (London: I. B. Tauris & Co. Ltd.), pp. 93-94.

1885 New York’s Great Industries (New York: Historical Publishing Company), p. 214.

2006 The Ronald G. Becker Collection of Charles Eisenmann Photographs (URL:

External Links: for a gallery of Eisenmann 'freak' photographs

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2013-11-10 19:00:52

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