5 March 2018

Life on the Fringes of Society

“They are all trying – through bodies of work – to reflect the complexities of the reality of those worlds that they are able to provisionally pass through,” curator Alona Pardo tells me of the link connecting all the photographers featured in the Barbican’s latest exhibition, Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins. Engaging in the dialogue between art, society and politics, the show directly – and at times poetically – addresses difficult questions about what it means to exist in the margins, the role artists have played in portraying subcultures and the complex interminglings of artistic and mainstream depictions of the outsider.

Igor Palmin Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 From the series The Enchanted Wanderer, 1977 Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

Photographers have long captured the fringes of society, documenting minorities, subcultures and countercultures with poignant results. Spanning over 50 years of global photography and featuring photographers such as Diane Arbus, Larry Clark, Mary Ellen Mark, Bruce Davidson, Paz Errázuris and Teresa Margolles, the Barbican’s new exhibition touches upon the themes of gender, race and subcultures, as it explores the lives of those who exist beyond the arbitrary limits of normality.

Bringing together over 300 works from the 1950s to now, it includes vintage and contemporary prints, archival material, specialist magazines, rare film and photo books, from leading photographers who developed these relationships and bodies of works over months, years and even decades. By recording and documenting those on the edges, or outside of the mainstream, the images in Another Kind of Life bear witness to how social attitudes change across time and space, charting how visual representation has helped shape current discourse in relation to marginalised or alternative communities. Curator Alona Pardo talked me through the exhibition and the series of stories behind the images that are driven by personal, social and artistic forces alike.

Paz Errázuriz Evelyn, La Palmera, Santiago From the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

so, another kind of life is part of the barbican’s 2018 season, "the art of change" – in light of that, what discourses does this exhibition hope to explore and inspire?
Very broadly, it looks at the main issues that have been dominating our consciousness in the last 50 to 60 years. It explores gender, sexuality and identity, how does it manifest itself? What’s the visual record of the trans community? What has been their engagement and collaboration within that representation? What are their roles in portraying these cultures? Those are the key areas of the show, but that also extends beyond the representations of gender, to looking at countercultures and generally minorities of all kinds. We’re not trying to define what somebody on the margins might be, because it’s so dependent on the kind of political and social contexts in which these works are made. It charts across from the late 1950s onwards, through to the present day across a really broad sweep of geographical locations, looking at snapshots of what it meant to live and to survive on the margins within a very specific context. 

what’s the starting point?
It starts with Diane Arbus because it marks a moment in photographic history when editorial photography began to waver slightly, which allowed a more hyper-subjective exchange with sitters, with photographers eschewing traditional photojournalism in favour of self-initiated personal projects. It starts specifically in that moment because it is the point when photographer discovered and sought out these communities – not because they have been sent there by the mainstream, but because they were compelled to do so. They were looking to reflect a more real, authentic and complex vision of the world in which they recognise they were living in, as opposed to the ‘American Dream’ utopian vision of society.

Philippe Chancel Untitled, 1982, From the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

the idea that “the personal is political” is foregrounded in this exhibition – can you talk about how one of the selected photographers developed a connection with their subjects?
One of them would be Mary Ellen Mark’s series, called Streetwise. She was sent out on commission by Life magazine to Seattle to photograph close-knit communities of homeless people living on the streets, and infiltrate their world, to a degree. She was sent out to Seattle because it was seen as an affluent urban metropolitan area that – unlike New York or Chicago or LA – wasn’t experiencing that kind of urban poverty. So she was sent out there and was introduced to this community which included a girl called Erin ‘Tiny’ Charles and Mary Ellen Mark spent the next 30 years not only photographing her, but also, in a redemptive fashion, trying to save her – not that she wanted to be saved or was asking to be saved, but the photographer had become so personally invested. Mary offered to adopt Tiny on the condition that she enrolled in a school in New York, but Tiny did not want to do that. 

Nonetheless, the relationship between the photographer and the individual community becomes absolutely central. They are privy to the most extreme, desperate moments in the times of need of their subjects, and these people turn to the photographer who has become a confidant and friend and totally transgresses the boundary between photographer and subject. There’s no longer that treatise put up by Susan Sontag of: “You are never really an insider if you start off as an outsider.” That completely collapses in these cases. 

Philippe Chancel Untitled, 1982, From the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

considering the wide scope of the exhibition, both geographically and temporally, how have countercultures and marginal communities evolved over time?
Incredibly, it shifts across time and space – our understanding of gender these days has developed leaps and bounds, but it isn’t across the whole of society. Some of these communities still say that they are being persecuted, outside of the metropolitan areas. So whilst things have changed in legal terms, judicial terms and social terms, those rights have to continually be fought for and held on to. They are not sacrosanct yet. At the beginning, with Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson, they were going out to photograph carnivals and circuses that included albino sword-swallowers and so on – those that were considered to have been “Other” at the time. That marks a moment with the fascination with the Victorian notion of the ‘freak show,’ and that is no longer part of our culture today, in the West at least. 

Katy Grannan Anonymous, San Francisco, 2009 From the series Boulevard © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

despite the differences in the collection, what unites these images together thematically?
They are united by the fact that there is a sustained engagement with the communities that they are photographing, which is critical to the selection. They also are united in the fact that they have all tried to have a collaborative partnership. That’s not to say that there are no moral ambiguities in the show – there are, and they are complex. However, they are all trying – through bodies of work – to reflect the complexities of the reality of those worlds that they are able to provisionally pass through.

moving forward, what role do artists and galleries have in terms of communicating social changes?
It’s our job to reflect on the role of art, society and politics in a meaningful and engaged way. The gallery’s responsibility should be to look at the world afresh and to shed a light on the broad spectrum of society, and how that has been documented and how it has enriched the world. Ultimately, it’s the artists out there making the work, and we are here to support them and say: “We want to give you a platform, and we want to shed light on these topics, we want to talk about it and discuss it.” Language has been a key focus in the show, because language isn’t stable, it’s not fixed, as it’s forever moving and still evolving. We are part of shaping the world in which we live, so therefore it’s absolutely upon us as a public space to bring these issues to the fore.

Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is at the Barbican from 28th February – 27th May 2018.

Igor Palmin Untitled, Arzgir, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 From the series The Disquiet, 1977 Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin