Harnessing the descriptive and expressive capacities of photography and film, the artists in this remarkable exhibition, Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s–1980s, all participated in changing the image of American life. They had no interest in what was stable, conventional or safe, and deployed their chosen media to reflect a broader, more complex and more diverse view of the world in which they had grown up.
Photographers Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand, and those who attended Casa Susanna, and filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, and Marie Menken created works that remain as challenging — even troubling — today as they did in their time.
The fashionable crowd dancing with abandon at the Metropolitan Museum’s Centennial Ball looks stranger than the dignified group of little people posing at home. The determined countenance of a young woman at a protest is as riveting and undeniable as the self-portrait with bruised and bloodshot eyes after an altercation with a lover. The individuals at Casa Susanna wear their feminine uniforms – slim shifts, matching pumps and purses, and tasteful accessories with chin-length bobs – with as much flair and gusto as the members of Chicago’s Outlaws Motorcycle Club do their leather, denim and Brylcreem. The Beat poets in Pull My Daisy, playing something like a version of themselves, crash a dinner party in the heart of conservative America, while the city that never sleeps is captured in stop-motion and rendered in a cinematic love letter by Marie Menken. Jason, a brilliant but self-destructive hustler and orator confesses and moralizes, blocks away from a motorcycle gang that Kenneth Anger celebrates for their outsider spirit, while simultaneously denouncing them for their totalitarian cultish ways.
These are various forms of fitting in as well as standing out, in ways that defied both cultural conventions and the existing visual record. Their visions remind us that the world is not united by a smooth surface, but rather by a complex network of ideas and images, often in tension with each other.
The exhibition Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s–1980s is part of the AGO Year of Photography, which runs through July 2016, and a key moment arrives in May 2016 as the Gallery becomes one of the official hubs for the 2016 Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival.
The AGO acknowledges the generous support of Aimia, Signature Partner of the Photography Collection Program.
Organized by the Art Gallery of Ontario.