Normally, when we think of “Outsider art” we conjure images of paintings and drawings like those in the Prinzhorn collection exhibited at the Hammer Museum a couple of years ago — artifacts made with the blunt tools and readily available media that don’t interrupt the normal routines of a psychiatric hospital. And this is still what you’re likely to encounter at showcases like January’s Sanford Smith Outsider Art Fair in New York. Conceptually and critically, however, the category has expanded almost to the point of becoming meaningless, with artists promoting themselves as “Outsiders” merely on the basis of their inability to get anyone on the “inside” to show their art.

While debate about the exact margins of the genus rages on, the agreed-upon canon has grown to include a fair amount of non-traditional art-making media — particularly in the category of visionary environments like the Watts Towers or Bottle Village. In a traveling exhibit that recently landed at UC Riverside’s off-campus California Museum of Photography, curators John Turner and Deborah Klochko attempt to expand the definition in a different direction — toward encompassing the problematic medium of photography.

Photography has had its own difficult relationship with fine art, one that hasn’t really been resolved to this day. Why take the time and expense to have a portrait, a picture of your house, or views of exotic lands painted when you can get a truer-to-reality depiction with a simple photograph? As this turf war took center stage, Modernists seized on photography for its inherent abstraction, its immediacy, and its very lack of historical baggage. This essentially oppositional position — combined with the medium’s scientific, journalistic and amateur documentary functions (i.e., snapshots) — kept it out of the inner circle of legitimate art media for most of the 20th century.

By the time photography finally started coming into its own in the early ’70s, the art establishment’s authority was under serious attack from a number of cultural forces — including the emergence of Outsider art as a legitimate parallel to the fine-art world, with its own star system, dealers, collectors and critics. Recent mainstream interest in “de-skilled” art-making, the exponential growth in available photographic technology (particularly digital), and the curatorial reclamation of “found” and amateur photography have further blurred the boundaries of what might be called Outsider photos — before the boundaries have even been established.

“Create and Be Recognized” takes a calculated approach, focusing considerable attention on artists who are already solidly ensconced in the Outsider pantheon — Adolf Wölfli, Henry Darger, Lee Godie, Rev. Howard Finster — who happened to incorporate photography into their practice at some point. This is all well and good: It provides a point of entry for viewers who are familiar with only the superstars of the genre, and, quite frankly, you can’t go wrong with these guys. It also raises the point that much of the work is, in fact, collage that happens to incorporate photos — often mechanically reproduced advertising images from newspapers or magazines. Which is fine. But it indicates a considerable sacrifice of depth and focus in favor of a convenient broad-spectrum inclusiveness that allows the stars to come out.

Take Darger, for example. One of the best-known Outsider artists, Darger was a poor janitor who worked secretly most of his life on In the Realms of the Unreal, a 15,000-page, copiously illustrated account of a fantasy war between the prepubescent Vivian Girls and the evil Glandelinians. Certainly Darger’s work was inextricably entangled with photography: His entire obsessive oeuvre appears to have hinged on the loss of a 1911 newspaper clipping of a photo of 5-year-old murder victim Annie Aronburg; a small but not insignificant portion of his work (sampled here) did involve photo-collage; and his familiar mature work — the sprawling watercolor vistas depicting various military campaigns — depended on photographic enlargement techniques (procured from the local drugstore) to scale his source images before he traced them. But Darger didn’t own a camera.

Similarly, Howard Finster’s photographic dabblings are distinctly peripheral to his main project of constructing his visionary environment Paradise Garden and the production of more than 46,000 works of sacred art — mostly paintings. The show’s emphasis on collage doesn’t mean the exhibit is weakened, necessarily. Much of the most visually exciting work included is collage — Wölfli’s always-compelling scores and diagrams, and particularly the autobiographical assemblages of circus clown C.T. McClusky, which co-curator Turner found in a battered black suitcase at the Alameda Penny Market over 30 years ago, sowing the seeds of this very show. But the most intriguing work here — and that which makes the best argument for Outsider photography as a category — comes from artists more directly engaged in the technology and cultural connotations of the pure medium.

These include Richard Shaver — the paranormal researcher whose photographs of cross sections of rocks revealed them to contain 3-D images of Atlantean culture; Morton Bartlett, the Boston blue blood who over the course of 30 years made more than a dozen anatomically correct plaster sculptures of prepubescent boys and girls, which he would (usually) clothe and photograph in a variety of inescapably creepy poses; and Russian deaf-mute Alexandre Lobanov, whose earlier military drawings became subsumed into a studio portrait practice that gorgeously mimicked Soviet propaganda-poster design to create work that wouldn’t be out of place in any contemporary international biennale, though it dates to the early 1970s.

If “Create and Be Recognized” wasn’t mandated to set a precedent, there’s a lot more of this kind of work that might have been included. Catalog essayist Roger Cardinal (who originally coined the “Outsider” designation) cites numerous missing examples, from mediumistic spirit photography of the Victorian era to French neuropsychiatrist and fabric fetishist Gaëtan Gatian de Clérambault, who took some 40,000 photos of drapery before his death in 1934. The mainstream art world isn’t far behind: New York’s Metropolitan Museum recently mounted “The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult.” And as I reported in an earlier column, the blurry deadpan snapshots adorning reclusive Outsider musician Jandek’s album covers were featured at Gagosian’s during December’s Berlin Art Fair.

Quibbles aside, this is a beautiful, moving and eye-opening show well worth the trek to the Inland Empire. The lure of the in-the-flesh Wölflis and Dargers should be more than enough to draw you out — especially from one of the few major metropolitan centers virtually devoid of a community devoted to this kind of work. More importantly, the show succeeds in making an argument for the recognition of Outsider photography as a cutting-edge genre demanding further study — and more narrowly focused and in-depth curatorial exploration. Because in tomorrow’s Outsider art world it may not be enough to be a paranoid-schizophrenic pedophile designing palaces for the aliens in the hollow earth. You’ll need to bring along a camera.

CREATE AND BE RECOGNIZED: PHOTOGRAPHY ON THE EDGE| California Museum of Photography, University of California, Riverside | Through April 15

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