The process of bringing these vintage clown pictures to life
You can see all of the original images below, plus the after versions. It will probably be obvious at a glance that the pictures aren’t recent — the low-resolution images were small and lacked detail, and the colors had that yellowed patina of age.
I wanted to see if I could enlarge them without making them look worse, then hopefully fix some of the other issues to get them as close as possible to the quality of the decades-old originals.
That’s how AI (artificial intelligence) got involved, by way of a software tool I use used to resize images for this site, as well as to correct distortion, blur and pixelization in old photographs.
The tool bases its modifications not just on the colors and light and pixels in a photograph, but also considers what the image is supposed to be, and helps restore it to its intended glory.
While the technology is far from perfect (and, when working on vintage images, makes things worse about half the time), sometimes it produces results that are startlingly clear. When combined with other photo editing tools that help restore the correct colors, increase contrast, boost brightness, and get rid of spots and scratches, you can sometimes make old images look almost like new.
In this case, the restored vintage clown pictures looked so much more lifelike than before (those eyes!), and details that were easily overlooked before became obvious — like the stockinette caps, white stage makeup, drawn-on features, and plastic wigs. (You can see some before and afters below.)
Old-fashioned clowns, looking pretty realistic? To many people today, that means they look pretty creepy… and maybe a little scary. 🤡
In fact, a fear of clowns — whether we’re talking about a phobia (Coulrophobia) to a simple aversion — is actually a well-studied phenomenon that has been highlighted in Scientific American (“Why Clowns Creep Us Out”), Smithsonian Magazine (“The History and Psychology of Clowns Being Scary”), the Associated Press (“No laughing matter: When exactly did clowns become scary?”), and Brittanica (“Why Are People Afraid of Clowns?”) among others.
Even across the pond, the BBC reported on a 2008 survey that found that decorating kids’ hospital wards with paintings of clowns was not a great idea. “A University of Sheffield study of more than 250 children, aged four to 16, found the images were widely disliked,” they wrote. “Even some of the oldest children found the images scary.”
I’m not anti-clown, and have little doubt that all of these guys spent a huge part of their lives trying to delight and amuse kids. But when you look at the restored vintage clown pictures on this page, you, too, may wonder why so many people thought that clowns looked adorable.
THE AI-RESTORED VINTAGE CLOWN PICTURES
Happy goof: Clown Paul Jung
“A happy goof” is what clown Paul Jung calls himself in this disguise, which shows clown makeup in its simplest elements: big mouth, bulbous nose, pop eyes.
One of Ringling’s top clowns, Jung winters in Tampa, Florida, running a “laugh factory” where he makes all kinds of clown props, from atom-smashers to giant shoes.
Vintage clown Buzzie Potts: Before & after
Clown Paul Monier: Before & after
Ernie Burch/Blinko: Before & after
Paul Alpert/Prince Paul: Before & after
Clown Jimmy Armstrong: Before & after
Art Cooksey: Before & after
Edwin F Green: Before & after
Old-fashioned clown Myron Orton: Before & after
Frank Luley: Before & after
Frank Saluto/Little Frankie: Before & after
Irvin Romig/Ricky the Clown: Before & after
Jack Gerlich: Before & after
Clown John Reilly: Before & after
Johnny Tripp: Before & after
Ringling Bros. clown Lou Jacobs: Before & after
Ringling Bros. clown Felix Adler: Before & after
Eddie Buresh: Before & after
Clown Carl Stephan: Before & after
Clowns: Their makeup is an artistic expression of their own special traits (1949)
From LIFE magazine (July 11, 1949)
When a tent full of circus lovers erupts with laughter at the sight of a ruby-nosed clown, nobody there would think to describe the clown’s face as a work of art. Yet clown make-up has become a folk art as genuine as cigar-store Indians or hillbilly songs.
On the following pages in George Karger’s color photographs, LIFE presents 19 samples of this cheerful art which goes on exhibit twice daily this summer, rain or shine, inside the big tent of the Ringling Bros show.
Like most painters, who prefer to start with a pure white canvas, most clowns like to start with a pure white face. In their dressing tent, a pail of white pigment is prepared — zinc oxide mixed with glycerin and olive oil.
After whitewashing his visage, the clown sets out to create a fantastic new fairy-tale face. He uses mostly bold red and black, so his new features can be seen easily. He makes his mouth fabulously big and performs great distortions on his eyebrows. One clown paints an extra pair of eyes on his eyelids.
For false noses, clowns often use ping-pong balls painted red and cut to fit over real noses.
Clown Felix Adler has a whole set of false noses, each with a different gem set in front. Like a man picking out a tie, Adler can choose every day a jeweled nose to fit his mood. [Below] he wears a diamond.
Clowns jealously develop their own make-up to suit their faces and personalities, seldom trying to hide or change their character. Instead, they tend to exaggerate their traits.
Paul Jung, a friendly person, makes himself “a happy goof.” Doleful-eyed Emmet Kelly, emphasizes his sober side by his famous tramp make-up.
Clowns resent the old cliche about being sad-souled Pagliaccis, but actually, they are pretty serious-minded. Though they caper to please children, most of them are childless and unmarried.
Inclined to be clannish, the clowns get up their own private pinochle games, and sometimes feel they are being high-hatted by trapeze stars.
A clown’s big moment is the “walk-around,” the interlude between change of acts, when he gets his chance to parade around the tent doing his specialties. Only a few clown acts are done inside the ring.
The bitterest moment in a clown’s life comes when the ringmaster, to speed up the show, signals for the tent to be blacked out during a walk-around. All the hapless clown can do then is stumble off in darkness, and his proud red nose, like poet Gray’s rose, must blush unseen.
More vintage clown pictures
Clowning around with some Heinz pickles (1956)
Vintage snapshot of a girl & a sad clown (1960)
This pic came from an old ad for the Polaroid Land Camera.
Clowns on the cover of Saturday Evening Post magazine (1965)
Not enough detail to restore: Bozo the Clown on TV (1961)
When photo restoration doesn’t help much (TV ad from 1956)