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‘Abused, Abandoned and Invisible Worlds’ Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins, Barbican

The exhibition ‘Another Kind of Life. Photography on the Margins’ puts together twenty well-known and not-so-well-known photographers from all over the world to show various ‘other’ kinds of life. There are all sorts of groups and societies which, for various reasons, found themselves excluded from conventional or ‘normal’ society. It is important to remember that the measure of ‘normality’ always depends on time and place. Thus, twenty photographers from 12 countries, who took photos since the 1950s, could bring a comprehensive understanding of such a delicate and disturbing topic.

Daido Moriyama. Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK. Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

The show is located on the two floors in ten mini-halls. The diversity of topics and photographs makes it almost impossible to process. However, an ‘easy’ way to comprehend such a questionable experience simply doesn’t exist. The first three halls present the most classical photographers working with the marginal groups: Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Daidō Moriyama. They can be defined as an ‘older generation’, which had an influence on the younger photographers exposed in the following halls. All of them were working in the 1950s-1960s and kept a distance between the artist and the character.

For the young visitors, some of the topics might seem irrelevant so as to be called ‘marginal.’ Those topics include race conflicts (Philippe Chancel) or sexual identity (Walter Pfeiffer) since in western society oppression on such grounds has slid into the past. Some of the topics such as homelessness (Boris Mikhailov, Jim Goldberg) or drug addiction (Larry Clark) still looks actual and compel us to feel discomfort and embarrassment, though that is exactly how photography on margins is supposed to work. Some topics look even innocent such as photography of youth British subculture of Teddy Boys (Chris Steele-Perkins). Overall, outsiders either came to the edge of the system being repressed or made their own choice to oppose that system. Though, the boundaries between these two can be blurred.

Walter Pfeiffer. Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur. © Walter Pfeiffer

The photo series of the oppressed people is indeed dispiriting and harsh. You cannot find any rational explanation for such an unjust fate of those persons whose lives permanently became the public domain. Eventually, you understand that those people live in another reality with a different concept of normality. A well-known photographer Mary Ellen Mark was documenting homeless children in Seattle in 1980s, - those kids who were carrying the guns, diving in the dumpster for food and selling sex. A similar topic can be found in the works of Jim Goldberg, fixing the lives of homeless teenagers in Los Angeles and San Francisco in 1980s-1990s and the tragic story of rock-star Tweeky Dave.

Mary Ellen Mark. Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington. From the series Streetwise, 1983. © Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

My colleague Yulia Savikovskaya has had an opportunity to interview Boris Mikhailov and his wife at the exhibition opening, so there is a bit more detailed exposé about Boris’s series ‘Wedding’ (2005-2006), presented at this exhibition. ‘Wedding’ is the third series which continues Boris’s art line, started in the 1990s. The first two series ‘Next to the Earth’ (1991) and ‘Twilight’ (1992-1993) document totalitarian regime, which is falling apart, and anxiety rising in the society. While shooting ‘Wedding’ Boris wanted to show one of the layers hidden in Soviet time reality. It was important to show his complex perception of the world, which was not common in the USSR.

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Boris thinks that ‘Wedding’ is popular in Britain due to a certain cultural conformity and views on the poorness and homelessness. He refers to the novels ‘Oliver Twist’ and ‘The Prince and the Pauper’. It is hard to believe but at the time when ‘Wedding’ was created, it was possible to lose everything and find yourself at the social bottom. The woman on the photograph is the one who lost herself. What would you think of her if you hear how she cites Lermontov’s poem ‘The Sail’ by heart?

Usually, people consent to be photographed, moreover, Boris tries to ‘help’ them, paying ‘in a western manner’ as he thinks. People are willing to communicate, as they basically need to talk to someone and express the feelings. Sometimes Boris chooses the characters, sometimes the process of shooting happens spontaneously.

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Talking about marginal societies who made their choice by themselves is a different story. And it is also hard to name it a choice, as the alternative was to live unhappily and feel inferior. This is particularly true for the transgender community, surviving in Pinochet’s regime (photographed by Paz Errázuriz). Cases in question are Casa Susanna – a place where male and female could safely explore their gender identity and Soviet hippies, photographed by Igor Palmin.

Sometimes, the matter of ‘marginality’ is determined by photographers as in Katy Grannan’s works. She was catching people, who visually differed from the mythical image of the West. The most extreme manifestation of people who voluntary withdrew from the society is presented in the works of Alec Soth. The author looked for the hermits, monks and survivalists in the American hidden places.

Katy Grannan. Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010. From the series The Ninety Nine. © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

There can be a delicate situation when it is not an ‘oppression’ but also probably not one’s ‘own choice’, like in the works of Seiji Kurata, showing nightlife with yakuza, motorcyclists and gang fights. Analogously, photographs of Philippe Chancel illustrate rebel Paris in the 1980s and ultra-nationalist movements. We do not know whether it was a choice or life circumstances, but such conscious anti-social behaviour is always aggressive and opposes the system.

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

Driven by their own motivation to show the authentic reality of such communities, photographers found different ways to get close to the characters. Photographers can take on the role of insiders: Danny Lyon joined the biker crew ‘Outlaws’ to represent their lifestyle, Larry Clark was documenting the life of his childhood friend in his hometown. They also can ‘pretend’ to be insiders, spending a lot of time with the characters: Jim Goldberg spent six years accompanying homeless teens, Paz Errázuriz lived with the transsexual community. At other times they can come to an agreement with characters: Boris Mikhailov paid to ‘bomzhes’ (homeless) on his photographs and involved them in the process of wedding imitation. In any case, photographers sympathize with them, like Igor Palmin did, fixed hippy’s lifestyle in the Soviet regime. It is notable that photography of margins is interlacing the artists’ and the characters’ lives, making their roles blurred.

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

The exhibition is definitely worth visiting at least in order not to forget that the world is much more complex than most of us are used to see it. It is also important to remember that there are always real people standing their ground in a nonconforming way changing the concept of normality. It is hard, some photos cause rejection and disgust, but this the only way we can start accepting the reality different from ours.

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