More than any other medium, photography is used to convey ideals of beauty: air-brushed fashion models, curated Instagram feeds, utopian advertising campaigns. Another Kind of Life collects the opposite of those, its pendulum swinging past the median into something else, a distorted looking glass world that most of us will never encounter.
The entire lower floor of the Barbican Art Gallery is made up of black and white pictures, giving it a funereal tone. Here you can find a series of shots by Bruce Davidson of Jimmy “Little Man” Armstrong, a circus dwarf whose clown make-up grin is in stark contrast to his doleful face as he smokes cigarettes, hands thrust deep into pockets. Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama – the subject of two current London exhibitions – presents a series on Tokyo nightlife full of bored sex workers and tattooed yakuza.
All around the world misfits and outsiders instinctively band together: greasers in New York, eunuchs in Delhi, hippies in Russia, Teddy Boys in Bradford, transgender prostitutes in Mexico. Some shots, like the pompadoured youngsters in the dance halls of northern England, show flashes of mischievous fun. But they’re in the minority.
In a series by Mary Ellen Mark, street children in 1980s Seattle sell their blood and their bodies to survive. One picture shows a child known as “Tiny”, who features in photographs spanning a period of years, sits in the lap of a middle aged man. In another she cries by a window.
A series about people choosing to retreat from society altogether is striking through absence; a glitter ball hangs from a tree in the middle of a forest; an abandoned house is daubed with the words “They did it” and “I love my dad Tony I wish he loved me”.
Then there’s Jim Goldman’s story of Tweaky Dave, a homeless, heroin-addict teen whose father shot him in the stomach aged 12. Alongside the grimy photos of urban despair are scrawled messages and his jacket bearing nihilistic and Nazi slogans.
Tweaky Dave ended up on Jerry Springer, achieving a twisted kind of fame before his inevitable death from liver failure shortly after. In 2016 Kanye West was criticised for selling a suspiciously similar denim jacket for $400. This bizarre turn of events shows the voyeuristic fascination we have with people living outside of society’s rigid parameters, and even this exhibition, with its layer of artistic separation, can’t entirely escape this.
Photographs of a physically stunted Russian couple in various states of undress – posing suggestively, casually passing a sex toy – feel intrusive, raising questions of consent. How much do we need to see?
But without the work like this, we could happily pretend the blurred edges of society don’t exist at all. While some of these groups want neither help nor pity, simply to be left alone, others have clearly been failed, and these lessons feel as pertinent today as ever.