“Outsiders” is a Photographic Tour de Force Across Underground America

Photo: Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising (film still), 1963, 16mm film transferred to digital file (colour, sound, 29 min.), Courtesy of Anger Management

Photography bears witness and in doing so it become evidence of what has come and gone. Were it not for the pictures that survive we might never know of countless lives and histories untold. So much of what is shown, whether in the media or on the gallery walls, is the insider’s story reinforcing the status quo. “Seeing is believing,” is what we are told, over and over again with every visual cliché and archetype repeated ad infinitum.

Also: Secret Histories | “Radical Women” Offers a New Frame for Looking at Latina Art

But then there are those who break the mold, who are charged to go beyond the “known” and return to us a gift of the world as it really is. Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s-1980s edited by Sophie Hackett and Jim Sheeden (Skira Rizzoli) brilliantly recounts some of the greatest masters of the twentieth century weaving their way through the fringes of society.

Shirley Clarke, Portrait of Jason (film still), 1967, 35mm film transferred to digital file (black and white, sound, 105 min.), Courtesy of Milestone Films

Featuring works by Kenneth Anger, Diane Arbus, Shirley Clarke, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Marie Menken, Garry Winogrand, and Gordon Parks, as well as photographs from Casa Susanna, a private resort for cross-dressers in upstate New York, Outsiders is a nothing short of a tour-de-force through the countercultural movements that laid the groundwork for the free society we enjoy today.

Outsiders features some of the most seminal photography projects of the mid-twentieth century, including Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, Danny Lyon’s The Bikeriders, and Gordon Parks’s A Harlem Family 1967, among others. Taken together, they provide a breathtaking view of the United States during a period of conformity and rebellion that is at the heart of the culture wars we are fighting today.

Marie Menken, Go! Go! Go! (film still), 1962–1964, 16mm film transferred to Blu-Ray (colour, silent, 12 min.), Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives

As social documentarian, the photographer has the ability to transgress boundaries that the mainstream seeks to hide or vilify, offering us another way of looking at the dazzling scope of human experiences from all walks of life. So many of the image selected here have become archetypes, from Nan Goldin’s self portrait after being battered to Garry Winogrand’s interracial couple holding fully dressed chimps. This is American, land of the free and home of the brave, willing to confront the complexities of life without running away.

It is the courage to face life that makes a photograph powerful; in it’s refusal to turn a blind eye and erase reality. But to create these images takes guts; the photographer is charged to examine him or herself just as s/he examines the world. It requires honest introspection that and steel nerve to go beyond the safe space of the decorative.

Garry Winogrand, Untitled, c. 1970, gelatin silver print, printed 1970s, 27.9 x 35.6 cm, 2014/1359, Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchase, 2015.

© The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Garry Winogrand observed, “I look at the pictures I have done up to now, and they made me feel that who we are and how we feel and what is to become of us just doesn’t matter. Our aspirations and successes have been cheap and petty. I read the newspapers, the columnists, some books, and I look at some magazines (our press). They all deal in illusions and fantasies. I can only conclude that we have lost ourselves, and that the bomb may finish the job permanently, and it just doesn’t matter, we have not loved life…I cannot accept my conclusions, and so I must continue this photographic investigation further and deeper.”

Outsiders does just this, offering a panoply of paths taken over time by photographers who dared to live their lives outside the lines.

Nan Goldin, Greer and Robert on the bed, New York, 1982, cibachrome, 71.8 x 104 cm, Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York © 2016 Nan Goldin

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.