Portfolio: Christopher Chadbourne's shot of 3ft 7in showman 'Pete the Clown'


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The Independent Culture

Pete Terhune was a man of many names. To his mother, he was Norbert. In the theatre, he was "Little Lord Leon". In the circus ring, "Pete the Clown". And in the sideshow world, he was known as "Poobah" – a name borrowed from The Mikado by legendary showman Ward Hall's business partner for no apparent reason, but which Terhune carried for more than half a century.

The human volcano, as he was introduced for his fire-eating majesty, was also said to be "the youngest of the Munchkins" – though he never was in The Wizard of Oz – and an Oompa Loompa, though there is no evidence to suggest he ever went near Willy Wonka's factory.

Such was the life of the 3ft 7in showman as he gulped down flames at America's state fairs – a chameleon around whom the fair barker could weave stories, to draw punters to the main tent.

Also fond of telling stories: Christopher Chadbourne. He took this shot of Poobah, who died at the age of 82 in July 2012, at the Minnesota State Fair in 2009. "The history and hardship of this American tradition are written in Pete's weathered face," he says.

Yet the photograph captures, too, the vivacity of the fair – the titillation (the showgirl), the hustle (the barker, whose legs we see), the sheer flamboyance. "I wanted people to feel they are at the fair," says Chadbourne of the angle at which he took the shot, "as if immersed in the crowd."

'State Fair. The Last Living Munchkin from the Wizard of Oz and Other Stories' is published by Kehrer this spring, priced €34.90