Outsiders: American Photography and Film, 1950s - 1980s
“Nothing is the same as they said it was. It’s what I’ve never seen before that I recognize.”
— Diane Arbus, 1972
Outsiders highlights the groundbreaking work of a select group of photographers and filmmakers who put forward new views of the American social landscape from the 1950s to the 1980s—a time of intense political and cultural transformation in the United States. Each of the artists featured here—photographers Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand, and the snapshooters of Casa Susanna, alongside filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, and Marie Menken—made use of their chosen media to reflect a more complex, authentic, and diverse view of the world than the one they had grown up in.
The documentary impulse of these artists stemmed, in part, from their sense that the status quo was untenable, and that the current visual expressions of American life did not reflect what they knew of the world. Some, in response to discrimination and its infrastructures, deliberately set out to alter this visual record. Others sought to shake off the genteel, aspirational veneer of the mainstream milieus in which they had been raised. Through new aesthetic approaches and through the subjects they chose, they brought to light the complexities of the moment—in particular the complex relationships between insiders and outsiders—in ways that remain potent today.
The outsiders at play in these works are manifold. They appear as subjects in the photographs and films, marginalized for a variety of factors: race, socio-economic status, sexuality, physical appearance, eccentricity. While some of these individuals were systemically excluded by the predominantly white, straight middle class, others expressed a deliberate and stylized disdain for its staid values. They responded by fostering their own communities and thus their own “inside”—and photographers in these communities advocated for the insider’s view as offering the most authentic perspective.
The moniker “outsiders” can also be applied to the artists themselves, not only because of their own identities and ideological commitments, but also because the work they produced fell outside the art establishment—at least at first. It is perhaps no accident that these artists turned to photography and film—as mass media but also as “outsider” media (that is, outside the traditional media of painting and sculpture)—as the best tools through which to express the new realities they each perceived.
Danny Lyon and Nan Goldin photographed their circle of friends from the inside—Lyon rode with the Chicago Outlaw Motorcycle Club, photographing them at home, in bars, and on the road, and Goldin documented her lovers and friends close-up, in intimate, often vulnerable moments. Gordon Parks seized the platform that Life magazine offered and used it to bring the lives of black Americans into view. Diane Arbus and Garry Winogrand each sought out individuals and situations with their own particular vitality, and saw the strangeness and beauty in them. And the cross-dressing photographers at Casa Susanna found evidence of their feminine selves in the snapshots they staged and shared.
The filmmakers also cover a broad territory. Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie collaborated to create an homage to the Beat scene in Pull My Daisy, a blend of scripted and improvised performances. Marie Menken created her own paean to the contemporary pace of New York City in the silent film Go! Go! Go!. Kenneth Anger’s rapid editing of both staged and original footage of bikers set to pop music in Scorpio Rising reveals a homoerotic fascination with, and a critical eye on, American youth culture. In a marathon 12-hour film session, Shirley Clarke committed to film a complex, even controversial, portrait of Jason Holliday, the first documentary feature film about a gay African American man. Parks and Goldin both move beyond the still image, with Diary of a Harlem Family, a short documentary film built from Parks's photographs, and The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a slide show of more than 700 of Goldin’s images, set to music.
These works—nearly 400 photographs, punctuated by films or film excerpts—evince new relationships between the artists and their subjects, essentially new relationships to humanity. In still and moving images, these documentary explorations profoundly altered the image of American culture.
Organized by and presented in partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario
Generously supported by Cindy and Shon Barnett, Maxine Granovsky Gluskin and Ira Gluskin and The W. Garfield Weston Foundation
Special thanks to Aimia, the AGO’s Signature Partner, Photography Collection Program and the Canada Council for the Arts
A highlight of the AGO Year of Photography