Nicholas Pan looks through the lens of Diane Arbus, Paz Errázuriz and Mary Ellen Mark to glimpse Another Kind of Life, the latest photography exhibition at the Barbican Art Gallery.
Lives that are “other” or Othered are numerous, but are almost always, by definition, marginal, as the subtitle of the new Barbican exhibition Another Kind of Life confirms. The passed halcyon days of numerous counter-cultures and subcultures – typified by Yakuza gangs, sexual non-conformists, Teddy boys who later became seduced by the National Front – alongside the presence of social oppression and stigma fill the imagination. This collection’s geographical, temporal and political reach about what it means to live and survive on the margins in a specific context is certainly ambitious. And existential threats, as much as “what you are” or the floating signifiers of its outward manifestations, can go disregarded, not least because of antipathy or indifference; or sometimes, because they sit in some of the most under-connected, under-represented pockets of the world. Some people too do not want to be found: Alec Soth’s crystalline prints of the bare Appalachian wilderness populated by the solitary figures, Caspar David Friedrich-style, of right-wing survivalists, hermits, and monks drive home this point.
Another Kind of Life unites 20 photographer-artists’ (from the 1950s-2000s) who bear witness to those with difficult relationships to majoritarian social and political narratives. The photographer-artists frame these individuals using various aesthetic strategies: traditional photojournalism, self-initiated personal projects, street photography, portraiture, vernacular albums to documentary reportage. Some works resonate empathy and humanity, others less so.
Curator Alona Pardo describes the collection’s ambitions as encompassing the ‘main issues that have been dominating our consciousness in the last 50 to 60 years; chiefly, gender, sexuality and identity’. Pardo goes on to question how these three somewhat interconnected issues ‘manifest’? Most importantly, she asks whether there is ‘a visual record of the trans community?’ And if so, ‘what has been their engagement and collaboration within that representation?’ For Pardo and her fellow curators, these ‘are the key areas of the show.’ However, the exhibition does extend ‘beyond the representations of gender, to looking at countercultures and generally minorities of all kinds’. Thus the Barbican strives not so much to ‘define what somebody on the margins might be’; instead it acknowledges, in the words of Pardo, the ‘kind of political and social contexts in which these works are made’.
The show begins with the late Diane Arbus, who by 1964 took to the streets of New York’s Metropolitan Area with a Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex camera. As a waist-level viewfinder, this small innovation provided a less obstructive connection with the subject than a standard eye-level one. In television reportage and on the streets, the hand-held was creating new modes of social relating, not least immediacy. Arbus’ encounters with marginalized people – the dwarves, the circus performers of Coney Island, transgender people, nudists – and others whose normality was perceived by the general populace as ugly or surreal, are sensitively captured, taking the beings in front of the lens as they are. While one could have ethical reservations about some of Arbus’ images, to suggest as some have that her real or perceived predatory impulses walk “a tightrope between art and exploitation” elides something of the street (documentary) photographers’ mission: capturing the particularity of the human condition, which has been an important endeavour that precedes the introduction of hand-held cameras.
What documentary street photography like Arbus’ is not by genre, is found elsewhere in these rooms: that is, we see work where the photographer is less of an informant and more a confidant. In Pinochet’s Chile, where expression of opposition to the status quo was swiftly and violently suppressed, we find the witness of Paz Errázuriz’s and journalist Claudia Donoso’s five years in the company of male to female cross-dressers, some of whom also worked as prostitutes in the clandestine brothels of Santiago and Talca. Conspiring with them to create their identities, La Manzana de Adá (The Apple of Adam), follows two brothers, Pilar and Evelyn, from their daily lives seeking refuge in bare domestic surrounding to their transformations as new selves, preparing before a night out.
The recurring motif of photographers who worked in gaining the trust of their subjects includes Jim Goldberg and Mary Ellen Mark, both of whom connected with runaway or homeless adolescents in Seattle and Los Angeles. In these relationships – for Mark they lasted decades – we are given a hint of what techné and its attendant care and attention does. And it’s not exactly difficult to feel an indistinct poignancy when it comes to the work of Goldberg. Raised by Wolves, Goldberg’s photobook of the same name published in 1995, braids many individual stories into a larger one of teenage homelessness and comprises artefacts, photographs, film stills, collages, interviews, handwritten testimonies and fragments of biography. The received correspondence between photojournalism and truth is ditched here for a multi-media, impressionistic approach. Analogue graininess, blur and often radically cropped photos evoke the ‘grungy’ energy of lives lived on the run, not only from authorities, but the adult world. Through this we gain some access to the brittle day reality of a veteran, a traveller, an addict, a self-described rock star named Tweeky Dave and the recent runaway Echo, as they hustle, take and score drugs, and hang out in squats.
An alternative take on photographic insider-outsiders might be more questionable, yet still positive. The challenging and transgressive photo series’ of Boris Mikhailov responds to this dilemma. In his native town of Kharkov, post-Soviet Ukraine, his series The Wedding presents a fictional marriage between two Bomzhes, the rural poor and homeless. Mikhailov’s photographs of these nearly naked figures taken in their personal surroundings, disturbing and irreverent as they are, hint at the idea that not even insider status can escape the inviolacy to their participants. Hardly conceptual or academic in its artifice though, Mikhailov is careful not to avoid moral complexities – his models are paid to pose in ambiguous scenarios, emphasizing the tenuous relation between photographer and subject, voyeur and victim. After all, how visual media, and more importantly how knowledge is produced is bound up with the many questions of power.
Overall, the most haunting projects are those driven by the photographers’ personal or political motivations to address some kind of authentic representation of the disenfranchised communities with whom they spent months, years or even decades with. Contained in 20 rooms are reflections of, and active constructions on, a world too complex for summary, where the differences are themselves differential. Another Kind of Life places these lives, so the cliché goes, in-the-frame, but perhaps not entirely with benign or intended consequences. In turn, audiences who would go on being complacent might have their preconceptions quietly shifted or slapped across the face, in the particular way only the aestheticized lives of others, complicated and becoming, can.
Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is on at the Barbican Art Gallery until the 27th May 2018.