Exhibition Review: Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950’s to 1980’s

I went to another exhibit today, this one at the Art Gallery of Ontario. With the title of Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950’s to 1980’s, this exhibit featured the work of photographers Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, Danny Lyon, Gordon Parks, Garry Winogrand, attendees of Casa Susanna, and filmmakers Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie, and Marie Menken. I think the description from the AGO exhibit web site sums up the exhibit best, in how it describes the motivation of the artists:

“Motivated by a sense that the status quo was untenable, and that current visual expressions of American life did not reflect what they knew and saw of the world, they deployed their chosen media to reflect a more complex, more authentic and more diverse view of the world in which they had grown up.”

I can’t give an an exhaustive review — too much to take in, and I will definitely be going back multiple times, so I will just give a few impressions of what really struck me:

The work of street / event photographer Garry Winogrand was striking. Using a wide-angle lens and a 35mm camera, his images are full of movement and dramatic angles. Even images that might look random and haphazard at first glance, are anything but if you look at them closely; they all have a Cartier-Bretonesque “decisive moment” sensibility about them. On one wall of the exhibit, his prints have been laid out close together in rows, like a contact sheet writ large. From a technical point of view, the silver-gelatin prints are universally excellent.

Next I want to talk about the work of African American LIFE photographer Gordon Parks. His photographs of Harlem, and the bitterly difficult lives of its residents are hard-hitting, brutally unflinching, yet containing moments of tender thoughtfulness. The lighting is often very dramatic and contrasty, but the prints do the images justice, with beautiful shadow detail and a long tonal scale. What is really interesting about the presentation of his work is that includes actual copies of the LIFE Magazine issue that contains his Harlem photo-essays that visitors can leaf through to get a better sense of the historical context in which Parks work was presented.

The work of Diane Arbus will perhaps be most familiar, and her famous images such as that of the young twin girls, and the young boy with a toy grenade are present. The is some variability of the print quality here, but not enough to take away from the power of Arbus’ vision.

Finally, what struck me was the collection of photographs from Casa Suzanna, a refuge for heterosexual transvestites in the 1950s/1960s in New York State. The presentation of original; “snapshot” sized prints, many with inscriptions, brought home the sense of community. This collection features a number of Polaroid instant as well. The Instant print process was popular, as it lessened the risk of being found out and ostracized.

For the exhibit overall, the feelings I sense are humanity and an incredible compassion on the part of the artists. Drug-users, drag-queens, the poor and marginalized, circus freaks etc. are all able to show their humanity, and overcome, even for a moment, the labels and unfair categorizations society had thrust upon them.

This exhibit is must see. For so many reasons.

The exhibit runs from March 12th to May 29th at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

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