Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers @ the Photographers’ Gallery

The Photographer’s Gallery is a tall, narrow building on a corner of Ramillies Street (numbers 16-18, to be precise) just behind Oxford Street, a hundred yards east of Oxford Circus. It’s an enjoyable maze, with exhibition spaces on the 5th, 4th and 3rd floors, a café on the ground floor and a shop of photography books and film cameras in the basement.

Under Cover: A Secret History Of Cross-Dressers

I came to see the large exhibition of rare vintage photos of men and women cross-dressing, entitled Under Cover.

The exhibition is drawn from the personal archives of French film-maker and photograph collector Sébastien Lifshitz. For over 20 years he’s been building up an extensive collection of amateur photographs from Europe and the US documenting the surprisingly widespread practice of adult cross-dressing. The very earliest photos are from the 1860s and the collection goes on through to the 1960s.

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man in makeup wearing a ring. Photograph from a photo booth, with highlights of color. United States, circa 1920.© Sébastien Lifshitz Collection courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

The photos are all ‘found’ – meaning none were commissioned or taken by Lifshitz, but are largely anonymous photos of unnamed and unknown figures which he has picked up at flea markets, garage sales, junk shops and on Ebay, among other non-specialist sources. As the exhibition introduction puts it:

These photographs of men and women posing for the camera, using the clothes and gestures traditionally assigned to the ‘opposite sex’ offer a moving and candid view into the hidden worlds of countless individuals and groups who chose to ‘defy gender conventions.’

Lifshitz’s initial impulse was simply to document the act of cross-dressing, limiting his aim to accumulating photographs which showed men dressing as women and vice versa.

But as the collection grew, he began to detect different themes among the images, themes which began to suggest more interesting ways of categorising and explaining cross-dressing culture.

A group of 12 cross-dressing women in America, 1912

A group of twelve cross-dressing women in America, 1912

The historical prevalence of cross-dressing

I’m not all that surprised that lots of men have enjoyed dressing up as women because I was raised on the TV sitcoms It Ain’t Half Hot, MumThe Dick Emery Show and the Kenny Everett Show in which men routinely dressed up as women, albeit for comedic purposes.

Drag queen Danny La Rue was all over the telly in my boyhood. He was awarded an OBE. Later on came the popular success of Lily Savage and the ongoing career of her creator, Paul O’Grady, who was awarded an MBE in 2008. Somewhere in between was Julian Clary who dresses fairly modestly now but was on TV throughout the 1980s wearing in the most outrageous outfits.

As a teenager I read biographies of Oscar Wilde and his gay circle which included cross-dressers. Also accounts of the ‘decadent’ Paris of the Second Empire or the ‘decadent’ Germany of the Weimar Republic, where men dressed as woman, wore lipstick and so on, and women wore men’s clothes, smoked cigarettes. And so on and so on.

In fact it’s a strange thing about the present generation of art curators that they sometimes give the impression of thinking that they’ve invented ‘deviant’ sex – homosexuality, bisexuality and all manner of other sexual practices – as if all these things are somehow new or can ‘only now’ be brought to public attention. This ‘now it can be told’ tone was also apparent in the recent exhibitions of Queer Art at Tate Britain and Outsider Art (featuring plenty of transvestites and transsexuals) at the Barbican.

As if there aren’t records of this kind of thing happening among the ancient Greeks or among the Romans, as if we don’t have records of it in Hindu and Moghul societies, as if Shakespeare’s comedies aren’t packed with cross-dressing gender ambivalence, or as if playing with gender roles hasn’t even been recorded among tribal societies. My point is that there is good evidence for so-called ‘deviant’ sexuality having been a permanent feature of the human race for as long as we have records.

  • From Sappho to Sand: Historical Perspective on Crossdressing and Cross Gender (1981) This paper reviews the history of cross-dressing, commencing with the Great Mother Cult through the Greco-Roman period and Judeo-Christian times, followed by the Renaissance period up to the 19th century to illustrate that cross-gender behaviour and cross-dressing are not new phenomena but have been present since the beginning of recorded history.

What, I suppose, is new about this treasure trove of material which Sébastien Lifshitz has collected is not the fact of extensive cross-dressing – it is that it has been so extensively documented in photographs.

The photographs provide a treasure trove of incontrovertible visual evidence, as opposed to all previous accounts which are based on the more slender and unreliable evidence of written records, anecdote, autobiography etc.

What photography does that written journalism or history or ethnography can’t is to say Here we are: we were real people, we had lives like you, we were short and tall and fat and thin and had freckles and spots and imperfections, we were flesh and blood like you and this is what we liked to do. You can’t deny or block or repress us. We were here and this world is our world, too.

Themes and chapters

The most interesting thing about the exhibition is not the news that for hundreds of years men have liked dressing up as women and women dressing up as men. That in itself is boring. What I found fascinating was the themes or areas into which Lifshitz divides his material.

There are about a dozen of them, each introduced by a lengthy wall label and they are as well-ordered and thoughtful as the chapters of a book.  They include ‘the New Woman’, cross-dressing in prison camps, cross-dressing in cabarets and vaudeville, the phenomenon of ‘drag queens’, cross-dressing in turn-of-the-century in American universities, in circus and travelling shows, and many more.

Cross-dressing prisoners of war

It’s the specificity of many of these sub-sets which grabs the attention. Thus anyone who didn’t realise there is a great deal of homosexual activity in any army is naive, but a wall of photos here demonstrate the existence of cross-dressing cabarets in prisoner of war camps during both the First and Second World Wars, surely a very specialised category of activity and image. It is extraordinary that prisoners were allowed to take photos of each other dressed up, and that so many of these images have survived.

French prisoners of war in the German camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

French prisoners of war in the German prisoner of war camp Königsbrück circa 1915 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Not a job for a woman

A section deals with the backlash against the ‘New Woman’, a term coined to describe a new vogue for independent and assertive (generally upper-class) women in the 1890s.

The usual type of panic-stricken cultural conservative predicted that if women started taking up masculine habits and activities they would soon stop menstruating, become infertile and Western civilisation would grind to a halt. You can read this kind of thing in any number of histories of feminism.

Lifshitz has found various photos which are designed as a satire on this fashion. They show women posing in the costumes of traditionally ‘male’ roles (the army etc) and are designed to show how ridiculous it is for women to do the work of men – but done in a comically stylish way which suggests the photographer was taking the mickey out of the conservative critics as much as the women. The sequence is titled ‘Women of the Future’.

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Women of the Future © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It’s a tiny window on the past and its popular prejudices, but also shows photographers and their audience quite capable of joking about the subject, about traditional gender roles and their ‘subversion’.

Cross-dressing weddings

Apparently, cross dressing was fairly common on women-only university campuses in America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. There were clubs in which women could openly wear mannish dress. What I’d never heard of before is that there was a fashion for carrying out wedding ceremonies with an all-female cast, many of whom – well, at least the groom – were dressed as men.

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Mock wedding, United States, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Were these a preparation for ‘adult’ life and marriage, or an odd fashion, or a satire on heterosexual norms?

The more of these sub-sets or sub-types of cross-dressing which Lifshitz presents, the more you realise that this apparently simple topic in fact covers or brings together a surprisingly diverse range of activities, attitudes and motives.

The nineteenth century growth of bourgeois conformity

Just to step back and remind ourselves of a little social history. The mid- and later-19th century saw a hardening of gender roles and stereotypes, and a concomitant a loss of psychological and sexual flexibility.

The flamboyant costumes which men commonly wore in the 16th, 17th and 18th century and which had endured into the Regency society which young princess Victoria grew up in – all those silks, ribbons, ruffs and bows – were steadily dropped as the century progressed in favour of increasingly plain, black, stiff and constricting clothes for men, and absurdly big, complex skirts with baffles and corsets, for women.

One of the complaints against Tory Party leader and Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli was that he dressed, oiled his hair and perfumed himself like the fashionable dandy which he’d been in the 1830s, long into the 1870s when such looks and behaviour had become frowned upon.

It is only in this particular historical context, in the setting of an increasingly ‘bourgeois’ concern for strict conformity to repressive social appearances, that all manner of previous types of ‘dressing up’ increasingly came to be seen as unfashionable, then undesirable, and then began to be perceived as a threat to social norms and conventions.

Why did all this happen? The conventional explanation is that the industrial revolution made life harder, more embattled and more intense for everyone, and that this was reflected in increasingly repressive cultural and social norms.

In the 18th century there had been the landowner who occasionally came up to Town and saw a small circle of bankers or courtiers, but mostly lived in reasonable agreement with the labourers who worked his land.

All this changed and kept on changing relentlessly throughout the 19th century as the new system of factories and industrialisation swept across the country. This turned rural labourers into an embittered and impoverished urban proletariat living in hastily thrown up terraced hovels, who periodically threatened to march on London or overthrow the entire political order.

In parallel was created a new class of arriviste factory owners who took advantage of their new-found wealth to try to and compete with the land-owning aristocracy in terms of lifestyle and attitude, but nervously aware of the fragility of their wealth and status.

All the classes of Britain felt more threatened and insecure. Britain had more wealth than ever before, but for many (many businessmen, factory owners and the bankers who served them) their wealth was more precarious that the wealth generated from land – as demonstrated by successive economic depressions and banking crashes through the later 19th century. These periodic economic depressions led to the steady sequence of violent socialist revolutions on continental Europe (for example, in France in 1848 and 1870) which put the fear of God into the English bourgeoisie.

In this socio-economic context, culture was permeated by a permanent anxiety, a dread that the existing state of affairs could easily collapse, from any number of causes. (I haven’t mentioned the dark cloud of anxiety created by the writings of Thomas Malthus who speculated that, if unchecked, the poorest of the poor would breed like rabbits and swamp society in illiterate thugs – yet another source for the widespread conviction that the uncontrollable sex instinct must be bridled, restricted and channelled into only the most strict, state-endorsed practices.)

And so the upper sections of society policed their own behaviour with ever-increasing anxiety that any lapse from the impeccably high standards of behaviour they set themselves might be it, the crack, the first tremor of the great social apocalypse they all feared.

The stress and anxiety about sexual deviation which had built up throughout the century into a permanent neurosis helps to explain the viciousness of the gaol sentence given to Oscar Wilde for homosexual behaviour (two years hard labour) since the judge and his class felt that an example must be made to terrify all other homosexuals into abandoning a practice which, according to their history books, had accompanied the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Imperial dressing up

Speaking of empires, it might be illuminating to take a detour to the big exhibition about the British Empire and Artists which Tate Britain held a few years ago.

This had a section about imperialists dressing up. It made the point that throughout the 18th century and the first half of the nineteenth century, British men, in particular, had a fancy for ‘going native’ and dressing up in the costumes of their colonial subjects. Take, for example, this image of Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, wearing traditional Afghan Dress, by the painter James Sant (1842).

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant

Captain Colin Mackenzie of the Madras Army, lately a hostage in Caubool, in his Afghan Dress (1842) by James Sant (Tate Britain)

But the Indian Mutiny (or the First War of Independence as Indian historians call it) of 1857 changed all this. It introduced a new note of bitterness between ruler and ruled. After the British Government took over direct rule of India from the East India Company it enforced far more strict divisions between ‘natives’ and their colonial masters, divisions which, within a generation, had hardened into unbreakable taboos.

My point is that it wasn’t only in the realm of ‘sexuality’ that people (generally well-off, well-educated people) who had once felt free to dress up as natives or women or generally amuse themselves in fancy costumes, felt themselves, in the second half of the nineteenth century, increasingly constricted in all aspects of their behaviour. It became wise to keep quiet about their little hobby or fetish.

The strictness of the taboo reflected the profundity of the anxiety – the anxiety widespread among the ruling, law-making and judging classes that one millimetre of flexibility around these issues of ‘correct’ behaviour would open cracks and fissures, which would quickly see all the ‘civilised’ values of society snap and unravel, the natives throw off their imperial masters, the great mass of impoverished proles rise up and overthrow their frock-coated masters – just as the barbarians had overthrown Rome once it abandoned the high moral principles of the republic and declined into the Tiberius-Caligula-Nero decadence of the empire.

Dressing up, wearing lipstick – isn’t that precisely what the Emperor Nero had done!

More cross-dressing

Back to the exhibition, which continues to entertain and provoke by demonstrating the wide variety of meanings cross dressing can have.

Transvestite entertainers

Take the enormous subject of cross-dressing entertainers. The wall label usefully distinguishes between men dressing as women to entertain and the far more flamboyant tradition of burlesque, which is characterised not just by women dressing as men, but by the outrageous exaggeration of ‘female’ qualities of grandstanding, elaborate dress, vamped-up make-up and so on.

The exhibition has several sets of photos of entertainers from way back at the start of the 20th century, showing how simple, naive and innocent an activity men dressing as women can seem.

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Five performers on a platform. Albumen print, Hungary, circa 1900 © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

It describes the different forms these entertainments took in different countries, from vaudeville, burlesque and music hall at the turn of the century, on to nightclubs and revue bars between the wars.

But the sweet innocence of the turn-of-the-century is a world away, in style, glamour and bombast, from the really outrageously flamboyant cross-dressing entertainers of the 1950s onwards, a hugely popular form of entertainment in post-War Germany and France, which in England was named ‘drag’ – hence ‘drag queens’ – which continued in English popular entertainment down to my day.

Straight or gay?

Not all these men need have been gay. Many cross-dressers have been happily heterosexual but just enjoyed dressing up as women. There is, quite obviously and supported by the evidence here, a spectrum of cross-dressing behaviours and motivations, from essentially straight men who just liked slipping into a comfortable floral dress and putting on a bit of lippy – all the way to the experience of transgender men who feel from puberty or even earlier that they are inhabiting a body of the wrong gender, and so have gone to various lengths to try and transition to the other gender.

Transgender

On this theme of tansgender – the story of Marie-Pierre Pruvot (born Jean-Pierre Pruvot, 11 November 1935) takes up a couple of walls but is well worth it.

Born a male in Algeria, Marie-Pierre became a French transsexual woman who performed under the stage name ‘Bambi’. Bambi was famous enough by 1959 to be the subject of a TV documentary. When her performing days were over she studied for a degree from the Sorbonne and became a teacher of literature in 1974.

There are several walls full of photos of her here because Lifshitz made an award-winning documentary about her in 2013. There’s no doubting that in her prime she was gorgeous, in that glamorous late 50s, early 60s way.

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi (Marie-Pierre Pruvot) in the early 1960s

Bambi undertook her own gender reassignment in an amateur way, buying over the counter hormones, until she had enough money to arrange an operation and help from medical professionals. There are several photos of her nude showing well-formed ‘female’ breasts. She didn’t just want to dress as a woman; she wanted to become a woman.

My point is that the transgender experience of wanting to become another sex is completely different:

  • from the heterosexual who likes dressing up as the opposite sex, for a while, as a hobby or fetish
  • from the homosexual who is likewise happy in his or her own skin, but as part of their character or as occasional role-playing likes dressing mannishly or femininely
  • from the homosexual who makes a living as a flamboyant drag queen

The Washington cross-dressers

Off to one side is a room which exhibits what seem to be the photos taken and shared among a network of rather boring, homely men who lived in 1950s Washington D.C., and who liked to dress up as rather boring, homely women and meet up at each other’s houses for parties – as recorded in a trove of photos Lifshitz has come into possession of and puts on display here.

Nothing loud or garish about it. The opposite. Rather humdrum. ‘Hello Mr Peters’, ‘Hello Mr Philips’ – except that the men passing the time of the day are wearing tasteful 1950s dresses with matching handbags.

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

Washington cross-dressers © Sébastien Lifshitz Collection. Courtesy of Sébastien Lifshitz Collection and The Photographers’ Gallery

This sequence immediately reminded me of the section at the Barbican exhibition about the Casa Susanna, a retreat in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, created solely for cross-dressing men.

The more you look, the more you see.

Women dressing as men

As to women dressing as men, some were famous lesbians who made a point of their mannish attire – I can think of a number of Weimar portraits of such aggressively masculine women who cultivated a louche bohemian image.

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

Portrait of the journalist Sylvia von Harden by Otto Dix (1926)

But for everyone one of these ‘notorious’ literary or artistic figures, there must have been thousands of essentially ‘straight’ women at American campuses who enjoyed dressing up as men (apparently). And then millions and millions of women who were in no way homosexual but just rebelled against wearing the ridiculously encumbering outfits society had assigned to their gender at the turn of the twentieth century, and so – without ceasing to be heterosexual women – just wore more practical, less ‘feminine’ clothes.

What I’m struggling to say is that, the more you look at these photos and the more you study Lifshitz’s fascinating wall labels which draw distinctions and categories and types and flavours of cross-dressing, the more you realise that this apparently ‘simple’ activity has in fact been carried out by a staggeringly wide variety of people, over a long period of time, and for all kinds of reasons, from trivial game-playing to profound identity crisis, from student high jinks to being the basis for a prime-time television career.

The photos

The long section on Bambi is a bit of a spoiler, really, because not many of the other people on display here are quite as drop-dead gorgeous as her.

In this respect the photos serve as a reminder (like most other collections of historic photos) of the way in which sitters for photographs (and the photographers themselves) have become steadily more savvy, more stylish, more self-aware, from the embarrassing lumpishness of 1900 –

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Burlesque comedian Crun-Crun in Avignon, France, 1900, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

to the knowing, rebel fagginess of the 1960s.

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

Man dressed as a woman, Mannheim, Germany, c.1960, courtesy of Sebastien Lifshitz and The Photographers’ Gallery

This latter photograph could have been taken today, a reminder that the world changed out of all recognition in the 60 years from 1900 to 1960, from the Boer War to the Beatles, whereas in the sixty years since then most aspects of culture – sex and drugs and rock and roll, package holidays, blockbuster movies and the ‘rebel’ look – have remained surprisingly static.

Interview with Sébastien Lifshitz

P.S. Size isn’t everything

Contrary to the impression given by the reproductions above, all of the images are quite small, certainly none of them are poster-size or painting size. The biggest ones are postcard-size being themselves old prints made from photographic film in the old-fashioned way.

Some are even smaller than that – there are whole walls of images no more than a few inches wide: for example, the iconic image of the man wearing lipstick at the top of this review is in reality only a few inches across and you have to lean right in to see it properly.

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers' Gallery (photo by the author)

Installation view of Under Cover at the Photographers’ Gallery (photo by the author)

Somehow this makes the images seem all the more rare and precious. Not commercially-made images capable of being blown up and sensationalised, but hundreds of small, often intimate, snapshots of secret lives, secret pleasures, secret wishes and secret fantasies, preserved in this fragile format to come back and haunt our brasher, more loudmouth age.

P.S. Floof yourself

A room to one side of the exhibition contains a big fabric blob covered in felt stick-on glasses, beards, moustaches and so on. To quote the instructions:

“Soof the Floof is a genderless, gelatinous, hairy little blob. This installation invites visitors to question ideas of gender, how wear gender, how we can subvert, deconstruct and reimagine gender. Soof the Floof is large felt Floof with felt props you can mix and match and playfully challenge ideas of gender.”

The room was empty. Shame. I’d have liked to watch some gender subversion in action.

Instructions on how to floof yourself

Instructions on how to floof yourself


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Another Kind of Life: Photography on the Margins @ the Barbican

Scale and scope

This is a big exhibition. It showcases the work of 20 leading photographers from around the world and brings together an impressive, almost overwhelming range, of material, with over 300 works from the 1950s to the present day, including vintage and contemporary prints, archival material, specialist magazines, rare audio recordings, films and photo books.

The theme is ‘outsiders and rebels’. As the press release explains:

By recording and documenting those on the edges, or outside of the mainstream, the images in Another Kind of Life bear witness to how social attitudes change across time and space, charting how visual representation has helped shape current discourse in relation to marginalised or alternative communities.

The rebels and outsiders come in roughly two forms, social and sexual. By ‘social’ I mean rockers, bikers, street gangs, criminal gang members, Teddy boys and so on. By ‘sexual’ I mean the pronounced thread of work which focuses exclusively on transvestite and transgender people, people of ‘unorthodox’ or outside sexuality, often prostitutes.

It struck me as I went round the show that you could categorise these as rebels-by-choice and rebels-by-sexuality.

Broadly speaking the pictures in the downstairs rooms are from the 1960s, by photographers born in the 1930s and 40s, who are American or European, and the pictures are in black and white. Up in the first floor galleries, the photographers are younger, the prints are in colour, a lot bigger and from a wider geographical reach (Russia, India, Chile, Mexico, Nigeria).

Each of the photographers has a room dedicated to their own work and for this purpose the normally fairly open gallery space of the Barbican has been converted into a warren of smallish rooms. The walls partitioning off the display areas are black and arranged in such a way that there are ‘dummy’ or empty spaces between them, converting the downstairs area into quite a maze. Indeed, they hand out a map with arrows to help the visitor find their way through it. If I’d had small children it would have been quite a good layout to play hide and seek in.

First a thumbnail sketch of the photographers and their work, then some thoughts.

The photographers – 1. Downstairs

Diane Arbus (1923 – 1971) American. Arbus became famous for taking photos of marginalized people – dwarfs, giants, transgender people, nudists, circus performers, and people stricken by what ‘normal’ standards might be called ugliness. Pictures of what we used to call ‘freaks’. She is quoted as describing the way she tried to go from being an outsider to the strange worlds she recorded, to going ‘inside’. The wall label explains that her work underwent a significant transformation when she started using a square format camera. Maybe she’s here at the beginning because she introduces many of the themes the exhibition will pursue.

The next room contains works by legendary American photographer Bruce Davidson (b.1933), specifically from the series The Dwarf and Brooklyn Gang. These were taken in the late 1950s and feature skinny youths in jeans, white t-shirts with rockabilly hairstyles on the beach at the cheap seaside resort of Coney Island, or hanging out in the streets and stairwells of New York.

Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama (b.1938) is famous for his seminal work, Japan Photo Theatre (1968). This features shots of ordinary people captured in candid moments, in bars, restaurants, drinking heavily, smoking, as well as shots of prostitutes and transvestites in Tokyo, belying Japan’s reputation for propiety and and conformity.

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Japan Theatre from the series Japan Photo Theater by Daido Moriyama. Michael Hoppen Gallery, London, UK Courtesy of Daido Moriyama Photo Foundation

Danny Lyon (b.1942) is an American photographer and film maker who works on the immersive principle. The works here record him becoming accepted in the mid-60s by the ‘hard-drinking’ motorbike gang, The Outlaws. Lots of photos of these tough guys wearing sleeveless denim jackets to showcase their tattoos, riding their rigs, smoking tabs and kissing their women.

The second Japanese photogrpaher in the exhibition is Seiji Kurata (b.1945) represented by starkly lit images from Flash Up (1975–79), a work depicting the seedy, often violent underbelly of gang culture in the notorious Ikebukuro and Shinjuku districts of Tokyo, featuring ‘leather-boys and bargirls’. The young toughs in Danny Lyon or Bruce Davidson are dead proud of their tattoos but they have nothing on these Japanese gang members who are covered from head to foot with intricately-drawn tattoos, often containing violent and threatening imagery.

Another American, Larry Clarke (b.1943) is a director, photographer, writer and film producer who is best known for his photography book Tulsa, in which he recorded in black and white photos (and in a rough and ready b&w film, on show here) the dead-end, semi-violent, drug-influenced world of his twenty-something schoolmates, shown smoking, drinking, snogging girls, driving cars, shooting up heroine.

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 - 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Untitled (1963) from the series Tulsa, 1962 – 1971 by Larry Clark. Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York and Simon Lee Gallery, London

Igor Palmin was born in Russia in 1933. The commentary explains that during the 1960s and 70s going on an ‘archaeological expedition’ was a good way for dissident youths to get away from the stifling conventions and social spying of home. Through these trips Palmin discovered scattered communities of young people trying to copy the western ideal of becoming hippies and ‘dropping out’. This resulted in the two works on show here, sequences of black and white photos set in the grungy post-industrial landscape of Southern Russia, The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) and The Disquiet (1977). The first one features numerous shots of the same long-haired, bell-bottomed hippy wandering round what looks like an abandoned gravel works; the second features a few more hippies, complete with flower power hair bands, playing guitars in abandoned buildings or smoking joints in a scruffy caravan.

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer, 1977 by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

Untitled XVI, Stavropol Krai, USSR, 1977 from the series The Enchanted Wanderer (1977) by Igor Palmin. Courtesy of the artist © Igor Palmin

The Swiss Walter Pfeiffer (b.1946) emerged on the peripheries of documentary photography in the 1970s and now flourishes in the mainstreams of contemporary fashion and style bibles. He’s represented by his body of work about his young transsexual friend Carlo Joh, from the Zurich gay scene. Partly inspired by Lou Reed’s recently released album Transformers (1972), Pfieffer took a whole series of black and white and colour photos and films of Joh over a few months in 1973, showing him in various states of undress, with or without wigs and make-up, playing with gender imagery.

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Untitled from Carlo Joh, 1973 by Walter Pfeiffer. Courtesy Fotomuseum Winterthur © Walter Pfeiffer

Born in 1959, Frenchman Philippe Chancel is best known for his work documenting Paris street gangs in the 1980s, specifically the Panthers and the Vikings. The commentary describes the gangs as being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’, and explains that they treasured vintage U.S. Air Force jackets and listened to hot jazz. The Vikings were named after the Del-Vikings, the first American rock’n’roll group to include both blacks and whites; The Panthers are named after the Black Panthers. Note both the American-ness and the datedness of these influences.

To my eye it was just another set of young dudes, wearing jeans, with rockabilly quiffs, smoking tabs, showing off their tattoos, dancing in nightclubs and getting off with girls. Far from being ‘outsiders’ I was struck by how much they were just copying what, by the 1980s, had become the international conventional look of youth ‘rebellion’. Some of them packed baseball bats and one had a gun. As sure as night follows day, we see all this revelry leading to street fights and then to some of les jeunes being carted off by les flics.

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Untitled, 1982 from the series Rebel’s Paris 1982 by Philippe Chancel. Courtesy of Melanie Rio Fluency, France

Casa Susanna is not a person but a collection of around 400 prints taken during the mid-50s and 60s at a private retreat for transvestites, a safe haven in upstate New York where they posed for the camera in glamorous dresses, playing cards, eating dinner and having drinks by the fire. This treasure trove of old prints was recently discovered at a Manhattan flea market and here it is, now a treasured part of gender-bending social history.

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

Susanna at Casa Susanna, 1964-1969 attributed to Andrea Susan, from the Casa Susanna Collection © Art Gallery of Ontario

The last room on the ground floor showcases black and white photos by Chris Steele-Perkins (b.1947) who was commissioned by the Times in 1976 to do a feature on contemporary Teddy boys. First time around in the 1950s, Teds were so named because they adopted the style of Edwardian dandies, with Brylcreemed quiffs, three-quarter length drape jackets and beetle crusher shoes. Steele-Perkins captured the lives, loves, music and fashion of the Ted revival of the mid-70s, with the usual cast of pimply youths hanging out in pubs and clubs, smoking tabs, showing off their hard man tattoos, dancing with stockinged girls, and showing respect to some of the wizened elders of the movement. I took a particular fancy to ‘Tongue-Tied Danny’s Wedding’, partly because of the title alone.

The photographers – 2. Upstairs

The exhibition continues upstairs in the nine rooms on the first floor, and the mood here feels distinctively different. The American photographers here come from a markedly younger generation than the ones downstairs, and there is a much wider range of nationalities.

You are immediately arrested by the work of Jim Goldberg (b.1953) and the selections from his harrowing work, Raised by Wolves (1987-93). This details the life of street kids Goldberg befriended in Los Angeles and San Francisco in the 1980s, including Tweeky Dave and Echo. There are plenty of photos but also physical objects including what appears to be the actual denim jacket covered in scrawls which one of the kids wears in the photos, FUCK OFF etched repeatedly in biro. And there are ‘photo-texts’ where a print of one of the street kids is accompanied by a white sheet with their scrawled, hand-written messages on them, such as:

I’m Dave who the fuck are you?

Or:

My mom was a junkie slut
My old man is a biker asshole from hell
the fucked-up asshole shot me in the gut when I was 10

These kids are really, really damaged. Another big print of a teenage boy with grazes on his face is accompanied by a text describing how sleazy old men pay to jerk off in front of him for money and how only taking drugs makes it bearable.

In some of the carefree biker photos of Lyon or Davidson, among the denim-clad young men lounging around smoking fags of shooting up or handling half-dressed women, there are babies. You can’t help thinking that Goldberg’s photos show what happened to those babies. Or what happened to the children of those babies. A couple of generations on from the original rebel chic of the late 50s to mid-60s, much of America is an urban wasteland of abandonment and dereliction and drugs.

This message is rammed home by the work in the next room of New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark (1940-2015). She worked on a long-term project, Streetwise (1983) recording her time spent with Erin Charles, a street kid known as ‘Tiny’, who she first met as a 13-year-old surviving on the streets of Seattle. In the last of these brutal photos teenage Tiny is crying, blurring her mascara.

Having consumed more than their fair share of American TV and movies through the magic of the internet, both of my teenage kids think America is the most fucked-up country in the world. Hard to disagree on this evidence.

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark/ Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Lillie with her rag doll. Seattle, Washington from the series Streetwise, 1983 by Mary Ellen Mark © Mary Ellen Mark. Courtesy Howard Greenberg Gallery New York

Then again – Putin’s Russia :).

Boris Mikhailov (b.1938) specialises in brutally realistic colour photos of the bedraggled, ugly, poor inhabitants of his native Kharkov. The homeless have a special name, the bomzhev, and the Mikhailov room is devoted to a particularly humiliating sequence of two ugly old bomzhev preparing for their marriage, the ugly dwarfish woman, often topless, showing her haggard body and flat breasts, the bearded husband playing around with a twelve-inch dildo. Here are the happy couple:

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Untitled, 2005 – 2006, The Weddding © Boris Mikhailov courtesy Sprovieri Gallery

Some light relief came in the form of a room of photographs by Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz (b.1944). General Augusto Pinochet headed a military dictatorship in Chile from 1973 and 1990. Any form of political, cultural or religious non-conformity was punished with arrest, torture and executions. Errázuriz created a series depicting the community of transgender sex-workers working in an underground brothel in Chile, which was gathered together in the book Adam’s Apple (1982-87). The photos here focused on the transgender brothers Pilar and Evelyn, the latter a particularly handsome man, who makes a fine-looking woman. I needed cheering up so I was relieved that some of the photos show Evelyn, apparently with other, straight, members of his family, laughing and joking. One of them catches a moment of real love and affection. Phew.

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

Evelyn, Santiago from the series La Manzana de Adán (Adam’s Apple), 1983 by Paz Errázuriz © Paz Errázuriz / Courtesy of the artist

By now the visitor might be forgiven for being overwhelmed, both by names and biographies of the photographers and the histories of their various projects, and by the rather exhausting emotional response some of the more harrowing photographs provoke. But there is still quite a lot more to see and process.

So it’s perfect timing that the visitor is taken by surprise in the next room which is devoted to five or so giant colour prints taken by Pieter Hugo. Hugo, born in 1976, is South African, and the selections are from the series named The Hyena and Other Men (2005–2007). This records members of the Nigerian gang of ‘debt collectors’ who go around with tamed hyenas to collect their debts. Yes. Tamed hyenas. I’d pay up pretty quickly, wouldn’t you?

Just as you’d begun to forget how wrecked America is, there’s a room of photos by Katy Grannan (b.1969) depicting what the Yanks themselves describe as ‘trailer trash’. There are some black people in there, too, but mostly it’s poor whites, economically and socially downtrodden.

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Anonymous, Modesto, CA, 2010 by Katy Grannan from the series The Ninety Nine © Katy Grannan, courtesy the artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

As sudden and unexpected as the hyena men is the next room which is devoted to a big screen showing of a film of Mona Ahmed, a eunuch from New Delhi. This is by Indian photographer Dayanita Singh (b.1961) who met Mona in the 1980s and formed a lifelong friendship with her. Mona was born a boy, castrated when young, and grew up to assert her identity as a member of a ‘third sex’. Beside the film is a series of stills of Mona which include her own ‘honest and frank words’ as accompaniment.

Born in 1969, Alec Soth, another American, by chance came across a guy living in the wild, completely detached from modern life, the state and so on, and this led him to uncover the whole sub-culture of American men (it is mostly men) who live ‘off the grid’ as the modern saying has it. The result is not only enormous colour prints of these haunting, solitary monks, survivalists, hermits and runaways but a number of documents, including wills, letters and manuals on ‘how to disappear from Amerika’. One photo was of a ruined wall in a derelict-looking house, peeling plaster etc, and scrawled on it:

I love my Dad – I wish he loved me

Which bathetically echoed the sentiments of the abandoned children in Jim Goldberg and Mary Ellen Mark. By this stage America really has been painted as the country of loss and abandonment.

The final room in the exhibition is devoted to the even bigger colour prints of Teresa Margolles (b.1963). These huge full colour works depict transgender Mexican sex workers, each one portrayed in a very styled and composed way standing amid the ruins of one-time nightclubs. Very very different from the rough and ready, snap and go, catching the moment black and white shots of Japanese bars and American bikers which we started the show with…

Dance floor of the club 'Arthur's', 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland.

Dance floor of the club ‘Arthur’s’, 2016 by Teresa Margolles. Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, Zurich, Switzerland

Thoughts

Big It’s big, a very big exhibition. Given that there’s a hefty chunk of text introducing each photographer, and a lot of the pictures themselves tell stories, featuring individuals who themselves require a bit of introduction, plus the films and the survivalist books – it’s a lot of information to take on board. And it gives rise to a tsunami of ideas and impressions.

Categories In trying to categorise or make sense of it all, I felt I could break the exhibition down into three very broad elements:

  • rebels by choice – the 50s, 60s and 70s bikers, hippies and Teds
  • rebels by gender i.e. people who don’t feel at home in the gender roles assigned to them, transvestites, transgender people
  • abandoned kids, and abandoned adults

Whereas in the 1950s or 1960s teen rebellion was a choice made by kids and young men who had choices, it is quite obvious that the lives of the abused, sexually exploited, drug-addled street kids of Lyon and Goldberg and Mark contain no choices. Their parents abandoned them or were incapable of looking after them. They didn’t choose to be selling sex on the streets at 13.

Transgender I couldn’t help feeling uneasy about the way the show threw together the issues and life choices facing transvestite and transgender people with the lifestyles of Hell’s Angels or Paris street gangs. The bikers and Japanese gang members and Teds seemed completely different to me. For a start those cultures are aggressively heterosexual and so in many ways confirm and entrench the social pressure which transgender people confront. And somehow it also felt as if those lifestyle choices – being a Russian hippy or an American biker – were in many ways superficial; after all, plenty of hippies ended up cutting their hair, going into business and now run big corporations. Somehow it felt to me as if the life choices the transgender people had to make – in Chile or Mexico or Japan – ran deeper, were more existential, went more to the heart of who they were.

Post-war American invents ‘cool’ Nine of the twenty photographers are American. That phrase about the Paris gangs being ‘in thrall to an idealised version of 1950s American youth culture’ is true of a lot of the other people shown here, too, from the Russian hippies to the London Teds.

After the Second World War America emerged as the most powerful and richest nation the world had ever seen. It pioneered a whole wave of consumer goods – phones, radios, televisions, fridges, washing machines, hoovers – which the whole world wanted. It pioneered and perfected aggressive new marketing techniques associated with thrillingly dynamic images of this new rich automobile lifestyle. And all of this was encapsulated and sold around the world via Hollywood movies featuring rugged-jawed men and the big bosoms of Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell.

And accompanying all the products and marketing of post-war industrial capitalism, America also pioneered all the ways a newly affluent generation of young people could rebel against it. The Wild Ones (1953), Rebel without a Cause (1955), On The Road (1957). From the Beat poets through Californian surfer chic on into flower power and Woodstock and then New York glam, American popular culture pioneered all the attitudes, fashions and looks which pissed-off young people around the world could adopt as symbols of their ‘rebellion’. According to the wall label, The Outlaws, the gang Bruce Davidson hung out with, influenced the conception of Easy Rider (1969), which itself went on to inspire a whole new generation of young men.

Somewhere along the way, I don’t know when exactly, this look – scruffy jeans, white t-shirt, fast motorbike – became completely commodified and commercialised. By when – was it sometime in the 1980s, or was it in the 1970s – every street market in the western world was selling ‘rebellion’ in the shape of studded leather jackets or pre-stressed jeans, and a whole universe of logo-ed t-shirts.

My point is that, although the actual people Danny Lyon and Bruce Davidson and Larry Clarke documented were real, and experienced their non-conformity as real, this look, this style, this approach, this feel, has for generations now been the stuff of international marketing and profitable merchandising. It has become the international stock language of youth ‘rebellion’.

Post-Cold War America pioneers urban collapse This, I think, explains the difference in vibe between the ground floor and the first floor rooms. On the ground floor are loads of black and white photos which could still feature in an advert for Levi jeans today. That look is totally assimilated into the international style of ‘cool’. It is amusing and thrilling and nostalgic to see all of them, American bikers, Paris gangs, English Teds. Aaaaah, sweet.

Nothing could be more different from the lost children of America on the first floor. This is the world of The Wire and Breaking Bad, depicting a nation which has become really dysfunctional, in which not just a few cool kids drop out to ride bikes or take acid, but scores of millions of families and abandoned individuals live lives of poverty and violence and drug addiction. This is a completely different kind of ‘outsider’, not cool and not by choice they are casualties of a society falling to pieces, a society ravaged by urban unemployment, astonishing levels of street violence, widespread opioid addiction and mass shootings.

Transgender issues I’m not equipped to say very much about transgender issues except that the exhibition provides striking evidence that it is a universal condition – America, Chile, Mexico and, most surprisingly of all, polite suppressed Japan, all have their transgender communities. It is, quite obviously, another way of being human which should be accepted along with all the other ways and means of being human. And at the end of the bombardment of nearly 300 images, one of my favourite images from the whole show was of Evelyn, the Chilean transvestite, smiling, looking genuinely happy.

Photography on the margins?

I couldn’t quite make sense of the theme or message of the exhibition. Sure all these people are outsiders of sorts, but there is a world of difference between an American motorbike gang member and a Japanese transvestite club entertainer. Isn’t there? And between both and a street kid who’s selling sex aged 12?

Maybe they all are ‘outsiders’, but why stop there? If we’re talking the 70s and 80s (which a lot of the exhibition does) what about Vietnam veterans or the Russian veterans of Afghanistan? Come to that what about the veterans of any war from the last 70 years or so, damaged, alienated, depressed, often institutionalised?

What about the inhabitants of mental institutions, outsiders if there ever were any?

What about immigrants who – so we read in the papers – often feel alienated and threatened and ‘outside’ the host culture? Or refugees, also strangers and outsiders?

What about the disabled, hospitals full of deaf or blind or paraplegic people, who have their own ways of communicating and affirming their identities? They’re outside the ‘conventional’ cultural narratives.

What about old people with dementia, a growing tide of people who are really outside all conventional narratives? (My dad had dementia; it puts you way outside ‘conventional social narratives’.)

And those are just Western groups. Thinking of India makes me think of the Untouchables, the excluded caste, which I’m sure have been the subject of photographic books. Why not them?

In short, as soon as you begin to think for yourself about groups living ‘on the margins’, ‘outsiders’ living beyond conventional narratives of society, you quickly realise there’s no shortage of groups and tribes and sub-cultures in any modern society.

So it’s an exhibition which manages to be both overwhelming in the number of images it presents – very high quality images by some brilliant photographers who have dedicated years and even decades to studying their subjects – but also seems to be oddly narrow, politically correct and ‘cool’, in its subject and themes – 60s bikers, street kids, transgender heroes (I appreciate the ugly Russian and the hyena men stand completely outside all these generalisations).

You should definitely go, though. It’s full of brilliant photographs in a whole range of styles, and will (probably) introduce you to wonderful photographers you’ve never heard of before. I’ve told my daughter to go and take her friends. She’s 16. She loves taking photos. She wants to get piercings and a tattoo in order to express her individuality. She’s been taught that society oppresses women and alternative sexualities. She wants to change the world. She wants to be a rebel. She’ll absolutely love this show.

The promotional video

Women in the art world

Barbican Senior Manager – Katrina Crookall
Barbican Director of Arts – Louise Jeffreys
Barbican Head of Visual Arts – Jane Alison
Exhibition Curator
–  Alona Pardo
Exhibition Assistant – Charlotte Flint


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

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