You’ve seen these photographs before, even if you haven’t. All of the signs are there: a flash harsh enough to bleach out part of the picture, mirrors multiplying the self, threadbare pantyhose signifying that self wearing thin. Diaristic photography exists to account for and to justify. These roles are interdependent: things unjustifiable soon fall away. And as a subgenre of photoreportage, this aesthetic is preoccupied with some form of social deviance. If it bleeds, it leads. Shoot it if it shoots up. The canon of the genre is: Larry Clark’s Tulsa, 1971, Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, 1986, Richard Billingham, Ray’s A Laugh, 2000.
If keeping a diary is a life-affirming act—one set up in memoriam of the moment–then why is diaristic photography always deviant? It is as if the very act of keeping a diary is, as a disavowal of the outside world, the communicative other, an antisocial act. A possible answer is an inversion that is central to the process of photography, which is, after all, just mechanized vision. When light enters the eye, it is inverted by the retina and must be flipped again in order to regain proper orientation. This represents more than an optic peculiarity. When turned into an image, the outside world is irrevocably changed; one forsakes some elements of understanding and lays claim to others. This switch most brutally affects memory and identity. Claims of how it was.
This can be visualized in the permeability of gender, which has long been one of society’s either/or mainstays. As Nan Goldin’s subjects slip in and out of drag, younger kids, treating gender like a pair of old jeans, slip in and out of self-awareness. It also helps to explain the antiheroic bent. In St. Genet, Sartre has a nice phrase: “the vertigo of those beyond repair.” Jean Genet–queer, thief, hustler–would be at home in these types of photographs. But there is a rise towards grace. Apollonian ideals that are all fucked up. Lindsay Dye’s photographs aren’t without their tenderness, their empathy. For snapshots, the pictures are startlingly well-composed. In these latent structures, one almost feels the salvation of art shining through the salivation of everything else.
Still, one has to ask: why does it look the same? We find clues in the mise en scene. Dirty beds, dive bars, bathrooms: the stage remains the same. Dye elaborates on the importance of surface. The drugstore processing of these photographs, the low depth of field of the camera itself reduced the atmospheric space. Everything is brought to the surface, to the point of schizophrenic obscenity. Schizophrenia is characterized by the subject’s inability to tell near from far, etc. Obscenity can be defined as seeing too much, as not being able to look away. Simultaneously, the pictorial space of these images, the moment which they represent, and their style arrive at the same point.
Anais Nin said that she kept a journal in order to live twice. Does the same redoubling of experience occur when taking photographs in the diaristic mode? It’s a thin line between referencing earlier work and being swallowed alive. At the very least, the younger photographer doesn’t enjoy the double life of written diary keeper. They are blind to the events that allowed for the original photo. More importantly, their vision is clouded with posture regarding whatever is lived in their life.
This is the next step of the spectacular society. If Debord is right, that objects and experiences were replaced with images sometime in the 1960s, then today we do not even claim ownership of our images, they belong to an earlier reality. This is the largest pitfall of this type of work, and it is identified by Nan Goldin herself in the last lines of Ballad’s accompanying text:
“I don’t ever want to be susceptible to anyone else’s version of my history. I don’t ever want to lose the real memory of anyone again.”
She has a book out that you can buy here or at Lester’s, if you happen to be in Wynwood.