Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins / Reviewed by Marco Bohr / 30.04.18
‘Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins’ is the title of a major photography exhibition currently on show at the Barbican Art Gallery. The exhibition shows the work of photographers who depicted people that are, to a greater or lesser extent, marginalized: whether that is economically, politically, geographically, culturally or sexually. The main focus of the exhibition is therefore on those operating outside of the mainstream such as travelling performers, itinerants, conspiracy theorists, criminals, transvestites, drug users, prostitutes or right-wing activists, to name just a few of the subcultures depicted in this exhibition.
Presented in a loose historical order – starting in the 1960s and continuing up to the present – the exhibition functions like an introduction to a who-is-who of the world of photography. These include well-known figures such as Diane Arbus, Chris Steele-Perkins or Bruce Davidson. Each of the 21 artists (eight of whom are American) has a room dedicated to their work which further highlights their dominant position on the international art circuit. So whilst the subjects depicted on the photographs are marginalized, the photographers who have depicted them have emerged as figureheads for their genre.
A potential confusion is brought up in the exhibition title ‘Photography on the Margins’ which might imply that artists are also operating on the margins of the medium of photography itself. With the exception of perhaps Jim Goldberg and Daido Moriyama, the majority of works on display are using traditional photographic techniques – not just in the way photographs are taken but also how they are presented such as the gallery-ready framed print. The margins explored in this exhibition therefore refer to the subject depicted in the photographs, not necessarily the photographic approaches.
There are some stunning pieces of work in the exhibition. Alec Soth’s ‘Broken Manual’ for instance is one of these bodies of works that takes on a whole new dimension when seen in an exhibition space rather than a book. The sensitivity with which he approaches men (and they are mostly men, as acknowledged in the accompanying text) living off-grid in the United States is visually accentuated through an overwhelming amount of detail from the plate camera he uses. The ability to empathize with these marginalized groups is one of the most remarkable aspects highlighted in the show.
The exhibition also raised questions about elements that were missing. The historical timespan from the 1960s to the present inadvertently misses out other periods where photographers have sought out the fringes of society. Indeed, one could argue that the phenomenon depicted by this exhibition is as old as the medium photography itself.
Photography’s relationship to the ‘other’ is troubled and complex. This is partially addressed in Boris Mikhailov’s room where it is acknowledged that the photographer pays homeless people in the former Soviet Union to pose for him. The binary between the objectified and the objectifier is an aspect that pervades all forms of photography – though particularly that which focuses on the margins of society.
– reviewed by Marco Bohr