From its earliest days, photography has probed the hidden: from porn to politics, it’s been there and brought back the evidence. Beyond that, though, is a shadowy place where photographers become so tangled up in what they’re chronicling that roles become blurred. These are not just the margins of society, they’re the margins of creativity. That’s what ‘Another Kind of Life’ is about.
Any photography show that kicks off with a room of Diane Arbus followed by one of Bruce Davidson means business and you’d better believe that things don’t get much easier after that. A lot of the themes in the show – sexuality, physical identity, race and marginalisation – are there in every one of their shots of outsiders. Davidson’s 1958 series ‘The Dwarf’ makes you question if his relationship to circus performer Jimmy Armstrong is much different to that of the audience who come to gawp, though Arbus’s 1963 portrait of a waitress at a nudist camp – wearing nothing but a frilly apron – hints that this isn’t simply a freakshow. Some of it is, mind you: ‘Another Kind of Life’ doesn’t shy away from the fact that there’s a big grey area in photography where objectivity, sympathy, voyeurism and titillation get all mixed up. From Larry Clark’s hometown speedfreaks of ‘Tulsa’ to Boris Mikhailov’s hard-to-stomach series ‘The Wedding’ – where he paid homeless alcoholics to enact a grotesque matrimonial picture story – there are a lot of disturbingly complicated relationships here.
In fact, there’s so much going on that it’s almost too much to process. After Dayanita Singh’s 30-year friendship with a Delhi eunuch, Pieter Hugo’s portraits of the ‘hyena men’ of Lagos and Teresa Margolles’s large-scale images of transsexual Mexican sex workers amid the ruins of demolished Juárez nightclubs, an evil part of me started longing for a nice Instagram of a bagel or something (perhaps that’s the point?). Amid the more extreme stuff, some of the most engaging stories are about subcultures: Danny Lyon’s ramshackle bikers or Philippe Chancel’s multiracial ’80s Parisian rockabillies.
Coming out of this show to normal life would be a jolt at the best of times, but I emerged to a Barbican teeming with excited schoolkids, while snow fell outside on a frozen London. ‘Another Kind of Life’ is one hell of a transformative experience.