by Jill Glessing
Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s–1980s
Art Gallery of Ontario
Curators: Sophie Hackett and Jim Shedden
The title that brings together the wild and woolly works in Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s–1980s1 is worthy of consideration. The word “outside” depends on its semiotic partner in crime – “inside.” as these conjoined descriptors ripple through the exhibition, however, their edges soften and make visible the shifting nature of what is accepted, praised, marginalized, and shunned.
That these “outsiders” – drag queens, druggies, and dispossessed – largely mediated through documentary photography and experimental film, now grace walls usually reserved for blockbuster shows signals a revolution, at least in the art world. The ever-increasing value of photography and film for art collectors suggests that the historical struggle of these once-lowly mechanical media is now over. Sparking across these works are the dialectical clashes that advanced social and art history, bringing them to their “inside” status today.
Two artists in particular – Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand – pushed this process along when, in 1967, they shared exhibition space in MoMA’s New Documents. For curator John Szarkowski, their work indicated a shift away from social reform photography and the photo essay, popularized by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and LIFE Magazine, respectively. Those potent earlier forms – at once humanistic and didactic – stirred social change, while at the same time providing mass media entertainment.
Tracking closer to European street photography, Sarkowski’s “new generation of documentary photographers” joined the tradition after Robert Frank cut critically into postwar American culture. Like his “decisive moment” precursor, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Garry Winogrand danced through crowds, but what he found and framed were not sweet slices of life, but social alienation and strife. Coming of age as America’s patina of prosperity was tarnishing, the new documentarians recorded the real world but did so to pursue their own personal obsessions in an increasingly strange world. Their marginalized subjects fascinate mainstream viewers, but their own motivations are equally interesting. The photographers’ entry into the documentary frame affirmed photography’s constructed nature and put a dent in its truth-value.
Like Winogrand, Diane Arbus sought subjects in her New York City environs. But, unlike Winogrand’s subjects, who seemed unaware of his hyperactive presence, the “freaks” that attracted Arbus’s alarmingly intense gaze looked right back at her. A Winogrand image here shows her in action, clutching a flower stem in her teeth – offered perhaps by the peacenik whom she’s intent on photographing.
Arbus’s solid compositions lend stability to her off-centre subjects. Lighting style fuels the Arbus mystery: in some images, harsh flash suggests a critical perspective; in others, light plays lovingly around her subjects…
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