“I’m interested,” Mary Ellen Mark, an American photographer, has said, “in people who aren’t the lucky ones, who maybe have a tougher time surviving, and telling their story.” So is a new exhibition at the Barbican Centre in London. “Another Kind of Life” brings together the work of 20 photographers, Mark among them, who have devoted months, years or even decades to documenting society’s outcasts. Beginning with Diane Arbus and Bruce Davidson, whose depictions of American outsiders – from mixed-race couples and rebellious youth gangs to nudists and circus freaks – were pioneering, it goes on to introduce a rich array of international voices working from the 1950s to the present. We meet Daido Moriyama’s geishas and gangsters of Tokyo, Pieter Hugo’s hyena handlers in Nigeria and one of India’s last eunuchs in a wrenching video by Dayanita Singh.
Over the more than 300 works on display, some themes begin to emerge. Following on from Davidson’s seminal “Brooklyn Gang” series, Philippe Chancel, Jim Goldberg and Chris Steele-Perkins homed in on the youths who willingly consigned themselves to the margins by joining subcultures. Others, such as Mark, Tessa Margolles and Katy Brannan, focused on those pushed to the edge through economic strife and societal pressures. Those who experiment with their sexual identities are the subjects of some of the most powerful works in this exhibition.
Not all the photographers shared the same motivation. Whereas Paz Errázuriz, a Chilean photographer, took pictures of the persecuted – like cross-dressing prostitutes driven out of Santiago – in order to record their plight, in other cases the line dividing activism and voyeurism is blurred. Bruce Davidson’s “The Draft” (1958), for instance, follows Jimmy “Little Man” Armstrong, a dwarf working in a New Jersey circus. He is the object of both sympathy and ridicule; in one image he runs through an audience pulling a bunch of balloons behind him, wearing not much more than a bra. Davidson once said that Armstrong’s body “both attracted and repelled me.” It’s this uneasy paradox that makes this exhibition so compelling.
“Untitled” (1963) by Larry Clark
A topless man, young but not necessarily youthful, leans down, his mouth open as if he were catching his breath. An electricity pylon stands in the open-sky; the foreground is dominated by a pane of smashed glass so close to the photographer it could almost be the lens of his camera. Behind it there is a diagonal line that suggests the window of a car. It is unclear what has happened. It feels like the aftermath of a calamity.
The figure in this image, taken by photographer and film-maker Larry Clark for his series “Tulsa”, is Billy Mann, one of Clark’s friends from the suburbs of this city in Oklahoma. Deeply embedded in this scene, Clark shot his companions with a rare sense of intimacy that sometimes borders on the brutal. The raw depiction of adolescent lives awash with drugs, casual sex and petty crime caused a stir when “Tulsa” was published as a photo-book in 1971. It was a world away from the American Dream. These photographs began what became for Clark a career-long obsession with wayward youth, most famously expressed in “Kids” (1995), a film he directed.
“Even though there’s no sign of any customers…” (1975) by Seiji Kurata
In the 1970s, many people in the West saw Tokyo as a clean, safe, technologically advanced metropolis inhabited by conformist, industrious denizens. In the late 1980s Seiji Kurata (b. 1945) presented a very different city. His book “Flash Up” (1980), which comprises photographs taken with a flash over five years in the working-class neighbourhood of Ikebukuro, plunges viewers into Tokyo’s seamy nightlife, with its tattooed yakuza, right-wing militants, bosozoku bike gangs and working girls. In this image, an alleyway of advertisement boards and lanterns extends into the distance, creating a feeling of dislocation within the vast metropolis. We know very little about Kurata’s subject beyond what we can see in the image and infer from its title. The photograph encourages the viewer to imagine the back-story: how did we get to this point, and what will happen next?
“Untitled XVI” by Igor Palmin (1977)
Igor Palmin often photographed young citizens of the Soviet Union who were dissatisfied with their nation’s collectivist values. The series to which this image belongs, “The Enchanted Wanderer”, named after a novella by the 19th-century writer Nikolai Leskov, depicts youths on an archeological dig in southern Russia. A chance to temporarily escape urban authorities, such jaunts were popular with would-be dissidents like Sergri Bolshakov, the student pictured here. He rejected Soviet ideology in favour of American counterculture, and with his flannel shirt, bell-bottom jeans and flowing hair, Bolshakov is the very image of the West Coast hippie. Yet he is presented as literally fenced in, with little hope of escaping the dilapidated communist landscape. Bolshakov reaches out and plucks the fence, as if testing its ability to hold him in.
“Tiny. Seattle, Washington” (1983) by Mary Ellen Mark
Dressed in an elegant black dress and veil, this nymphet looks directly at Mark’s camera, striking a pose of hard-bitten insouciance as she blows her gum into a bubble. There is something glamorous about this portrait, and something sad. We learn that Tiny (real name: Erin Charles) is 13 years old, that her dress is actually a Halloween costume, and that she is working as a prostitute to fund her addiction to crack cocaine. Mary Ellen Mark (1942-2015), a photojournalist based in New York, met Tiny and her group of friends in 1983 while she was working on a story about Seattle's troubled youth for Life magazine. Her stark, matter-of-fact photographs of them powerfully exposed America’s problems with child poverty, prostitution and drug addiction.
“Evelyn, La Palmera, Santiago” (1983) by Paz Errázuriz
With the ever-present threat of police brutality, internment in concentration camps and state-sanctioned murder, life in Chile under Auguste Pinochet, whose authoritarian regime lasted from 1973 to 1990, was terrifying for many. Paz Errázuriz, who worked a day job as a photographer of family portraits, spent her spare time bravely tracking down those most oppressed by the regime, such as those made homeless by Pinochet’s right-wing reforms and, in her extraordinary series “La Manzana de Adán” (“Adam’s Apple”) (1982-87), cross-dressing prostitutes. This photograph, a rare work in colour, is one of several she took of Evelyn. By his very way of life, Evelyn opposed Pinochet’s strictures; his bold, confident gaze here is itself an act of resistance. But there is also a sense of vulnerability, even fear: one misstep could lead to swift reprisals. In the end, Evelyn, along with all but one of the subjects of this series, died of AIDS.
“Untitled” (2005-06) by Boris Mikhailov
There are few artists in “Another Kind of Life” so deliberately provocative as Boris Mikhailov (b. 1938), whose work explores the desolation at the edge of contemporary Ukrainian society. The series “Case Histories”, published as a book in 1991, focuses on bomzhes – the homeless – in his hometown of Kharkiv, whose population grew rapidly after the Soviet Union’s collapse. Shot in bright colours, these images mingle tragedy with humour. For “The Wedding” (2005-06), Mikhailov paid bomzhes to enact a sham wedding. In this image, the “bride” is held aloft by her groom (on the right) and an unknown third figure. The series embodies a tension present throughout “Another Kind of Life”: are Mikhailov’s bomzhes willingly and consciously working to advance their position by collaborating with him, or are they being exploited for shock value? The answer likely lies somewhere in between.
Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins Barbican Centre, London, until May 27th