Every time I take a photograph, I get that powerful feeling of being able to capture an instant in the world that cannot be recreated, but that can always be looked back upon. Photos help us frame our world and create a story in our minds and the minds of others. But what kinds of photos are taken when your world does not reflect the status quo, and what do they tell us about being an outsider?
As a part of the Year of Photography, the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) held Outsiders: American Film and Photography, from March 12 to May 29 2016, as a way of showcasing photography and film’s central roles in contemporary life. The films and photos spanned from the 1950s to the 1980s, providing an intimate look into the world created by the various countercultures that manifested in the 60s.
Walking through the exhibit, what struck me the most was the way the word “outsider” could be so versatile for the artists. For some, like Garry Winogrand and Gordon Parks, “outsiders” were seen as those fighting for greater rights and representation and going against the traditional way of American life. But, polaroids by those who stayed at Casa Susanna, a safe haven for cross-dressers in upstate New York during the 1960s, showed that outsiders might also completely remove themselves from society.
Casa Susanna represented a safe space. A place where men could wear heels and curl their wigs without any judgements. These photos were particularly striking because they showed the immense courage that it takes to completely express identity when on the outside looking in.
Movement of Movements
The photos in the exhibit also represented the attempts of different groups – African Americans, women, homosexuals – to change the optics of American life, as many believed American culture did not adequately reflect their identities. This was powerfully illustrated by Garry Winogrand, whose photos focused on different protests, as well as the diversity of American life. Some of my favourite photos by Winogrand were a part of his Women Are Beautiful series, which depicted everyday life of women in the 60s and 70s, from eating a soft pretzel on the street to participating in various protests that ripped through the late 60s.
The series also reminded me of learning about the 1969 Miss America protest, where women burned bras and eyelash curlers to liberate themselves from the ideal of the “traditional American woman.” This portrait was seen to not adequately represent the different voices and intellectual views of members of the women’s movement, in the same way the broader era of countercultures called into question ideas of liberty and democracy in American society.
Although most of the photos in the exhibit were shot in black and white, the struggles depicted by each photographer, especially Gordon Parks, have not completely gone away. Parks, a LIFE Magazine photographer, used photos to show the day to day struggles faced by African Americans. This was exemplified by the Fontenelle family in Harlem, which provided a heightened awareness of inequalities in society.
Photos from protests to end police brutality echoed recent news broadcasts regarding the Black Lives Matter movement, and made me think about how far the civil rights movement has come, but also how far there is still left to go. Sophie Hackett, curator of the Outsiders exhibit, remarked that she wished these photos from the 60s did not remind her of “Trayvon Martin, Tamil Rice, Michael Brown, and the too long list of black sons and daughters who continue to carry a core fear when they step out into the world.” Parks’ photos were certainly needed in the 60s, but many have yet to realize that they are still needed today.
Outsiders reinvigorated my love of photos and showed me that pictures speak louder than words.