Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins at the Barbican
A transgender prostitute waits outside a club. A lovemaking couple pause to inject each other with heroin. A child smokes a cigarette on a street corner. A clown with dwarfism takes a break between performances. A man with Nazi tattoos stands naked in a forest stream. A young gang member holds a hyena on a leash.
These are just a few of the snapshots of life on the margins made visible by the revelatory new exhibition at Barbican Art Gallery. Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins examines the work of artists who have often dedicated their lives to capturing countercultures and social groups living outside mainstream society.
The variety of these marginalised groups is striking, ranging geographically from the seedy backstreets of some of the world’s biggest cities to the remotest wildernesses of America, and socially from Britain’s Teddy boys to Soviet Union hippies, Japanese gangsters, American bikers and secretive transvestite communities.
Rather than attempting to deal with these images thematically (which could easily have resulted in the sort of stereotyping that most of the photographers are attempting to avoid), the curators have chosen simply to present the works artist by artist.
Downstairs, the elegant grey rooms in which the pieces are displayed are separated by dimly lit corridors, allowing each photographer’s work to speak for itself and immersing the viewer in the world evoked by each. The presentation in each room is similarly, but unobtrusively, tailored to the specificities of the artist in question, making every element of this show feel like a miniature and thoughtfully curated exhibition in its own right.
The surface simplicity of the curation also allows threads of narrative and influence to reveal themselves, helping Another Kind of Life to provide an informative overview of documentary photography in the second half of the 20th century.
The powerful images on show give a glimpse of the varieties of human existence. Glamour, beauty and sex jostle with danger, violence and addiction, often within the same photograph. Some, such as Mary Ellen Mark’s photographs of street children in 1980s Seattle, could move you to tears. Others, like Pieter Hugo’s images of hyena-owning urban nomads in Nigeria, shake up our understanding of the relationship between humans and animals.
What these photographs have in common, perhaps, is that they all encourage us to open our minds and our hearts to those whose circumstances are probably very different from our own, but whose humanity is instantly recognisable.
Featured image: Paz Errázuriz,
From the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983
Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins is at the Barbican Art Gallery from 28th February until 27th May 2018. For further information or to book visit the gallery’s website here.