“Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins”

London

at Barbican

Paz Errázuriz: Evelyn, La Palmera, Santiago, 1983, C-print; in “Another Kind of Life.”

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“Another Kind of Life” featured photographs of people living “on the margins,” as its subtitle would have it: teenagers shooting up in Tulsa, depicted by Larry Clark (1963); members of the Chicago Outlaw biker gang going on rides, by Danny Lyon (1963–66); a porkpie-hatted actor in a bathroom in Japan, by Daido Moriyama (1968); British teddy boys, by Chris Steele-Perkins (1976); an Indian eunuch, by Dayanita Singh (2001); muscular Nigerian men in tank tops and fringed skirts controlling muzzled hyenas, by Pieter Hugo (2007). All the photos on view were arresting for their subject matter; many were quite disturbing. Some were tragic. Paz Errázuriz’s series “La Manzana de Adán” (Adam’s Apple) shows transvestites (some of them prostitutes) in Chile in the 1980s, when the country was under Pinochet’s dictatorship. Most of Errázuriz’s subjects died young, victims of that regime or AIDS. In a 1987 image by Jim Goldberg, we see a boy in a window in San Francisco drawing a bead on a blurry pedestrian across the street. We don’t know if the gun was fired, but the title of the series to which the photograph belongs says enough: “Raised by Wolves.”

The phenomenon presented in “Another Kind of Life” is global and more than two generations old: people of all ages, ethnicities, genders, and sexual orientations existing as “outsiders” and “in opposition to conventional society,” surviving “against all odds,” “living on the run” (all quotes are from the exhibition catalogue). It is no fault of the photographers that the formulations beg the really important questions: If these are “outsiders,” who are the insiders? What is “conventional” society? “On the run” from what? If this is the “margin,” where’s the center? The answers would require another set of photographs and a different, more critical curatorial practice.

American bikers in the 1960s may have actually epitomized more than opposed mainstream ideas. They heralded the ersatz independence that underlay the country’s claims of global cultural superiority—a myth that would be canonized in Dennis Hopper’s film Easy Rider (1969). The drug users that Larry Clark photographed were in the avant-garde of an addiction epidemic that soon ravaged working-class and black communities across the country. The British teddy boys, whose culture combined rock music and aspects of Edwardian dress, have a history of revanchism that has survived and even thrived to this day. A mob of teddy boys attacked West Indians during the Notting Hill Riots of 1958, and the later generation that Steele-Perkins photographed mostly retained their predecessors’ racial animus. Today, many of them hold membership in the UK Independence Party. As for the worship of guns (featured in the photos of Clark, Goldberg, and Philippe Chancel)—well, nothing much needs to be said about that.

Subcultures, countercultures, unconventional cultures, outsider cultures, and liminal cultures all exist within the policed domain of capitalist culture. The latter generates and then subsumes the former, the better to discover, cultivate, and profit from new needs and desires. That doesn’t mean that political and cultural opposition doesn’t exist—it does, thank goodness. It just means that resistance can’t be inferred by dress, speech, and habitus. Instead, it must be measured in actions taken, whose effectiveness must be carefully evaluated over time. “Another Kind of Life” was a powerful exhibition and its pictures exposed to view many courageous, oppressed, proud, flamboyant, repellent, and tortured individuals and their communities. But don’t suppose they all represented lives lived “on the margins.”