"Part of the argument I’m making is that for many of the other photographers, even if they started as outsiders, with their sustained engagement they became insiders," says Alona Pardo, who has included image-makers such as Diane Arbus and Jim Goldberg in her Barbican show
The man in the picture is slim, and wears a pair of white jeans and a patterned shirt, tied up at the front, cuffs loose. His curly hair is picked up by a sideways wind, tamed only by a black hippie band just enough to stop it from blowing across his concentrated stare. His right hand is raised – fingers uncurling to mimic a crumpled peace sign. Where he is isn’t obvious; the landscape is bare aside from a row of concrete pillars and a warehouse-like building not far behind. Meeting his gaze, we feel a sense of presence. Yet we are separated by a metal fence. Are we on the outside, looking in; or is he the outsider?
The photograph was in fact taken in southern Russia in the summer of 1977 by Igor Palmin, and belongs to his series, The Enchanted Wanderer. Palmin was hired to shadow a group of archaeologists from Moscow on their expedition to dig for Bronze Age mounds in Arzgir in Stavropol Krai. Such trips became a way for intellectuals and university students to slip away from the tightening control of the Soviet guard in the cities in pursuit of a life away from the claustrophobic glare.
The silent protesters embraced Western music trends and fashions, and plied themselves with DIY drugs they devised from the abundant supply of poppies growing in surrounding fields. Palmin found comfort in their company, and spent many years living with them on the sidelines away from the establishment, sharing in their community and politics.
Palmin represents a new kind documentary photographer who began to emerge in the 1950s. No longer was the camera merely functional; it became a vehicle for making a personal statement. In an exploration of such commitment and prolonged experience of a photographer choosing to devote themselves to a community or individual, Alona Pardo has curated an exhibition, Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, at the Barbican Centre in London, which runs from 28 February to 27 May.
The show, composed of 20 series made by 20 photographers spanning from the 1950s to the present day, includes seminal pieces by Bruce Davidson (Brooklyn Gang and Circus), Daido Moriyama (Japan Photo Theatre), Chris Steele-Perkins (The Teds) and Mary Ellen Mark (Streetwise), to name but a few. These are interspersed by lesser-known series, such as Flash Up by Moriyama’s protege, Seiji Kurata, and early works from Walter Pfeiffer (with a body of work on a young transsexual friend taken in the early 1970s) and Philippe Chancel (Rebels’ Paris, shot in 1982).
The new millennia is also featured with the works of South African photographer Pieter Hugo (The Hyena and Other Men), Katy Grannan (Boulevard, spontaneous street portraits shot in California), Alec Soth’s Broken Manual, and Teresa Margolles’ Pista de Baile, capturing transgender sex workers standing on what’s left of the dance floors from demolished night clubs in Ciudad Juárez, which sits on the southern side of the border between Mexico and the US, and has one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Each monograph tells a complex story in search of authenticity and often discovery of self. By looking at this careful collusion of what was some of the first visual evidence of shunned communities living on the outskirts of societies around the globe, we can ponder the legacy and residual impact that much of this prescient imagery has had on the gaze with which we view marginalised communities today.
“They’re all driven by motivations that are both personal and political to a degree, and they are all self-initiated projects,” says Pardo. “Some may have started as commissions, but very early on took on a life of their own. It was interesting to think about the role of the photographer, because often the photographer hides behind the camera as a facade. There is also an interesting subtext of the photographer occupying the position of an outsider within mainstream society. They are there, assertively documenting the world.”
The role of ‘the outsider’, be it referring to the photographer or the community they are studying, is extensively explored. Soth’s Broken Manual (2006-2010) – “a perfect hybrid of a work of art and a practical survival guide,” as described by Francesco Zanot in the exhibition catalogue – is an escape to a rural space where surviving is existing. The hermits and loners that Soth meets choose life in isolation, fleeing the density of the mainstream, and it is the photographer’s personal curiosity about life on the outskirts (in 2007 he spent some time driving through the North American wilderness in search of a cave to use as a refuge) that led him to joining them, albeit temporarily.
There is The Wedding (2005-2008) by Boris Mikhailov, who openly admits paying the homeless to perform his erotically staged compositions. Pardo argues that this representation of such characters, sidelined and forgotten after the collapse of communism, is just as integral to the exhibition’s trajectory. “I wanted us to jar with this uncomfortable truth, the fact that these people have been forgotten in the worst possible way,” she says.
“Mikhailov’s approach is provocative and controversial, but it tells the story of intimacy and humanity and the tenderness of these communities. They’re still human with all the sorts of feelings that everyone has, despite the hardships and being forgotten by the system. That was an important aspect to show.”
Other oeuvres tell stories through the eyes of those already on the inside. Larry Clark’s Tulsa (1962-1971) is an unapologetic, autobiographical account of youth, explicit in its depiction of sex, drugs and criminality, documenting in vérité style a world that collided with the glossy images of American life that decorated the magazines and picture books at the time. His photographs drop us inside dingy, graffitied bedrooms, linger over side tables laden with needles and cigarette butts, peering over the shoulders of jittery misfits shooting guns, the bullets of which we know not if they found their target.
Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders (1963-1967) is a rock’n’roll chant to the spirit of his fellow adrenaline-junkie motorcyclists – his loved ones and friends. Clark and Lyon are “participants in the communities they are photographing,” says Pardo. “While the photographs are difficult and raw and at times brutal, that is the reflection of the reality they were part of at the time. But they weren’t necessarily voyeuristic, even though they went in with the intention of photographing and documenting their life.
“There are photographers as insiders, but part of the argument that I’m making is that for many of the other photographers, even if they started as outsiders, with their sustained engagement they too became insiders. Jim Goldberg is the perfect example: he became as inside as you possibly can be,” offering shelter to the homeless youth he photographed.
North American photographers feature prominently, but the wider selection is notably international, including Dayanita Singh’s Myself Mona Ahmed (2001), shot in Delhi. The Indian photographer began the work as a magazine assignment on eunuchs, but when her subject realised it was not The New York Times but The Times of London, where she had relatives unaware of how she lived, she ordered Singh to return her film. The photographer’s compliance opened up a trust between them, Singh later writing: “I am not sure I was quite aware of the bond that had been created, and how much of a part of my life Mona would become.”
Paz Errázuriz’s series Adam’s Apple, shot during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the 1980s, leads us behind the curtain of a Chilean brothel, worked by a group of transgender individuals, back then often the target of abuse and persecution from the police. Errázuriz had been photographing the transsexual community for a number of years before she met Pilar, Evelyn and Macarena in Santiago, but by placing them and their co-workers centre stage, laughing, relaxing and representing their true identity, “it’s two fingers up to the establishment”, as Pardo puts it.
Representations of gender and sexuality are central to the exhibition. Of some 400 prints capturing life in a private retreat for transvestites in New York, discovered at a flea market in Manhattan, the 110 snapshots on display make for a warm contrast to much else in the show. Many guests of the Casa Susanna, formerly named Chevalier D’Eon, would have subscribed or contributed to Transvestia, a monthly periodical established in 1960, by Virginia Prince – also a frequent guest – filled with anecdotes, shared experiences and light- hearted stories by and about the trans community; photography was a crucial avenue for them to express their identity.
Two rare archival copies will be on display, alongside reproductions of pages, such as a column titled ‘Susanna Says’. Pardo explains, “The more we researched the material and the more we see the magazines, the more we question what it meant for self and public acceptance – awareness, legislation. This burgeoning community was out there, trying to share knowledge and experiences through images and narrative and stories.”
She adds: “Most of them are interior shots – you’ll notice that the curtains are always closed. There’s an idea of refuge, hiding away.”
The “lynchpin” for the exhibition, however, was Diane Arbus. It is through an extensive study into her oeuvre, considering its criticism but also looking further to her legacy and the impact of her vision on the discourse of today, that the curator was inspired to pursue these questions in the work of other documentary photographers. “The camera can access the nooks and crannies of society, and for someone like Arbus, it becomes very psychological,” says Pardo.
“She was trying to make sense of who she was by exploring. In my reading, she felt on the periphery of society, so she went out in search of those that literally occupied that space, in a bid to understand herself better. The drive that motivates these photographers is so complex and so different, and yet they all overlap and dovetail to a degree.”
While being on the outside, we witness groups of people finding comfort in the company of others; individuals drawn to each other making sense of existence. For some, there is intimacy and compassion. When Bruce Davidson first met Jimmy Armstrong, a dwarf working as a clown for the Clyde Beatty Circus, his appearance “attracted and repelled” him. Yet by the end of their time together, they had formed a close friendship.
In 2011, Davidson said: “I start off as an outsider, usually photographing other outsiders, then, at some point, I step over a line and become an insider. I don’t do detached observation.”
Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is on show at the Barbican Centre in London from 28 February to 27 May barbican.org.uk
This article first appeared in the March issue of BJP, available via www.thebjpshop.com