Picks and Pans Review: Hoaxes, Humbugs and Spectacles

UPDATED 01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 01/21/1991 at 01:00 AM EST

by Mark Sloan

It's not the definitive book on the history of hokum (for that, try Curtis MacDougall's Hoaxes). But Sloan, an itinerant photography-exhibit curator, has rummaged around and come up with a curiously entertaining batch of old pictures that run from the ridiculous to the even more ridiculous.

A few of them seem mundane, such as a shot of a nun trying out a Hula Hoop.

Many, however, seem like dramas condensed into a single intriguing moment. One such picture shows Violet and Daisy Hilton, Siamese twins joined at the hip who lived for 61 years, posing for an ad for mattresses. Another shows two locomotives crashing head-on in a staged event at the Minnesota State Fair in 1934.

Imagining what was going through these people's minds is probably the best part about seeing these pictures now, but the events they recorded were once real phenomena—current, hip entertainment. Among the quotes Sloan sprinkles through the book is this relevant one from philosopher and social critic Roland Barthes: "The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: What matters is not what it thinks but what it sees." (Villard, $25)

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