In the early 1930s, German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote an essay entitled “A Short History of Photography,” where he proposed that the medium of photography reveals the unconscious aspects of perception. The ability of the camera to make visible what the naked eye cannot becomes all the more powerful when it’s turned on those who exist at the fringes of society. Captured through a lens, people who’ve been marginalised, and often rendered invisible — whether based on race, gender, sexuality, class or ability – suddenly become seen.
“Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins”, currently showing at The Barbican, puts the spotlight firmly on such marginalised figures. Bringing together over 300 photographic works from the 1950s to the present day, “Another Kind of Life” not only catalogues subcultures, counter-cultures and minorities, but also makes apparent how attitudes have changed overtime in relation to gender, sexuality and the treatment of minority groups.
Through vintage and contemporary prints, archival material, specialist magazines, rare film and photobooks, members of subcultures and countercultures take centre stage. These images ask nothing of their viewers, only to take their subjects as they are.
The global scope of the show is also refreshing; as well as established breeding grounds for counter-culture such as London and New York, “Another Kind of Life” showcases locales which are often themselves excluded from Western-centric narratives, including India, Chile and Nigeria. The range of photographers on display, too, is commendably varied; heavy-hitters such as Diane Arbus and Larry Clark are present, but so too are photographers whose own visibility and voices have been diminished. Here are five participating photographers whose work is as brilliant as it is frequently overlooked.
Philippe Chancel’s monochrome series “Rebel’s Paris” is a romantic record of another time, but also documents a forgotten political narrative. The images depict teenage rockabillies in early ’80s Paris, dancing and clubbing, and doing what teenagers do. However, the teenage rebels hailed from two rival city gangs, the Vikings and the Panthers, who, unlike the majority of Parisian subcultures of the time, hailed from ethnically diverse backgrounds. Later, they would be linked with the anti-fascist movement emerging amidst a rising backdrop of French nationalism.
In her series “The Ninety-Nine”, Katy Grannan revists the dry and desolate Californian landscape famously photographed by Dorothea Lange during the Great Depression. In her sun-drenched portraits, taken in the outsider towns along Highway 99, her subjects are pictured as heroic and vulnerable at the same time.
Igor Palmin is one of the lesser known photographers partaking in the exhibition, but his work is no less impressive. His black and white images depict a little seen side of Russia: Soviet hippies in Summer of Love attire. Think bell-bottoms, headbands and patterned shirts casually tied at the waist – all against a barren, dusty landscape. His frequently cinematic photographs are an arresting snapshot into another time and world, one which is only made available to most through photography.
The “Casa Susanna” Photographers
Among the works being exhibited are a collection of photographs taken in the late ’50s at Casa Susanna, a transvestite retreat in the Catskills, New York. The photographs were found by chance at a flea market decades later and depict men dressed in homely full skirts, pearls and lipstick at dinner parties. The forgotten images present a minority group enjoying one another’s company without fear of judgement, and serve as a reminder of the role that photography plays in allowing subjects to process their lived experiences. We may never know the identities of these photographers, but looking at the grace and tenderness embodied in this found work, it’s hard to argue they don’t deserve a place on this list, whoever they are.
The Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz used photography as a mode of political resistance under the brutal dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet. Her photographs of transgender sex workers in the series “Adam’s Apple” are startlingly beautiful: her subjects radiate a feminine mystery and glamour, all slinky slip dresses, eyeliner and jewellery, which compel the viewer to stop and pay attention. Errázuriz’s images illustrate the necessity of photography in times of persecution.
Of her extraordinary photographs, Errázuriz has said: “They are topics that society doesn’t look at, and my intention is to encourage people to dare to look”. This could be a mantra for the exhibition as a whole, but on the condition that the subjects are not merely passively consumed by the camera. They use the lens for their own gain – as an instrument in confirming their identity, too.
“Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins” runs through to 27 May 2018 at the Barbican Art Gallery, Barbican Centre, London.