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BOOK REVIEW Outsiders: American Photography and Film 1950s-1980s
Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Liz Baudler
2017-04-04

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Edited by Sophie Hackett and Jim Shedden. $29.95; Skira Rizzoli; 190 pages

Outsiders, put together by Sophie Hackett and Jim Shedden, unites its subjects around the idea of observation. It's hard to see how else edgy Diane Arbus and documentarian Gordon Parks end up in the same book, which stems from a current Art Gallery of Ontario exhibition. Outsiders' conceit is that these particular photographers and filmmakers were notably skilled at observing but not inserting themselves into the subcultures flourishing around them in the turbulent decades between 1950 and 1990. Hackett likens this group to the New Journalists operating roughly around the same time period; they didn't necessarily associate with each other, but they changed the rules of their art.

The sheer diversity of Outsiders is a testament to its mission. It opens with images from Casa Susanna a retreat for cross-dressers and proto-transwomen, then slides into a selection of Arbus. Parks' time with the Fontenelles, a struggling Black family in Harlem, was commissioned as part of a Life Magazine article. Because of the size of AGO's collection, Garry Winograd, most famous as a New York City street photographer, garners his own section. These photos almost look composed by comparison with the shots from Casa Susanna.

Although often the subjects were posing for the camera they communicate a certain intimacy which Arbus, Parks and Winograd lack as they capture moments: their photos convey composition. Stills from Kenneth Anger's 1963 Scorpio Rising anchor the later sections of Outsiders. Anger's admission that the bikers he filmed were all straight is ironic in light of the film's place in the history of LGBTQ cinema. It also toys with how the images, while representations of the action, can serve their observer's gaze: Anger queered the straight bikers by dint of his desire.

Outsiders reads as a cogent introduction to each individual artist, but also to its thesis. Photographs take up a good half of the book, as well they should, but all of the essays included are crisp, thought and illuminating. In their differences, Arbus, Anger, Parks, Winograd and the other artists illustrate the many ways one can be an outsider and the importance of this kind of documentation. The rise of various mediums, Hackett and Shedden point out, offer more options to observe and to learn about those considered "the other." As Hackett writes, "the project thus feels important, even urgent, in its reminder of the power of photographers and filmmakers to help us see our world anew, with attention to detail and with empathy for the depicted subjects, whether we perceive those subjects to be like or unlike us."


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