Cleaning out the small, North Side apartment after his father died, young Ed Kelty found one -- and only one -- clue pointing to his dad's intriguing and sometimes bizarre career.

It was 1967, and going through the few possessions that Edward J. Kelty left behind, his son found a single camera lens. There were no photos. No negatives. No cameras. The lens was the only hint of Kelty's 20 rollicking years as a traveling circus photographer.

Today, nearly 36 years after his death at age 79 in Chicago Veterans Research hospital, E. J. Kelty's circus photographs are on the covers of two coffee-table art books. The most recent volume is devoted exclusively to Kelty's strangely compelling images of sideshow freaks, clowns and other circus exotics.

But what of the man behind the camera? In the early 1940s, the hard-drinking New York photographer and proprietor of Century Photography sold some of his negatives, unloaded the rest to settle a bar tab and moved half-way across the country to Chicago where he seems to have had no prior ties.

Most puzzling of all: As far as anyone knows, he never took another picture.

Collectible and rare, E. J. Kelty photos show extraordinary technique, but what makes the pictures irresistible is the subject matter: The bearded lady, the snake charmer, the sword swallower, here a woman with no limbs, there a pinheaded man. Giants and midgets tiny, tinier, tiniest.

They are hopelessly politically incorrect by today's standards but, "there's some kind of vicarious thrill that comes through those photographs. You just can't not look at them," says curator Miles Barth who wrote the biographical essay for the recently published book, "Step Right This Way: The Photography of Edward J. Kelty" (Barnes & Noble, 144 pages, $30).

After serving in the Navy in World War I, Kelty followed circuses in his specially outfitted little truck where he could process his film on the spot. He even slept there.

The lost years

Once in love with picture-taking, Kelty spent the last third of his life in Chicago doing something else.

What to make of those lost years?

"Probably we'll never know," says Ed, the older of Kelty's two sons.

Probably, he's right.

"The Kelty trail comes to a dead end in Chicago," says Barth. "Originally, I was going to call my essay, `The Mysterious Edward Kelty and Century Photographers.'"

"I did not find a single photograph in all of my research taken by Kelty after the date of 1940 . . . It's as though he was driving 80 or 90 miles per hour and his career just shattered. There were no pieces to pick up," says Barth.

From the bits he left behind in his tidy apartment, Kelty seemed to have had eclectic interests and a wide circle of acquaintances. He was "A big schmoozer. A guy who chatted with people," says his son.

Is it too much to hope that some of those people, reading this, can shed light on the last chapter of his life?

If he were alive today, E. J. Kelty would have just turned 115. He was born in Denver on Jan. 23, 1888.

His wife, Annette, a secretary in his successful Century Photography business, was only in her late teens when she married the boss, who was 34. She, too, is long dead. Though they never divorced, they had little contact after 1933, the year their second son, Charles Herbert ("Herb") Kelty was born. The brothers grew up knowing their father was a photographer who made pictures of the circus, but little more than that. A handful of his pictures remained with the family when the parents split up.

 

By Ellen Warren Chicago Tribune Senior Correspondent Published February 7, 2003
 

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