Snapshot photography's subjective objectivity

In recent years, after making a two-decade-long point about its being an "inadequate descriptive system," photography has gradually resumed its portrayal of the three-dimensional world. Still, its new portrayals are a departure from the mission laid out in photography's golden age. As reality has come thundering back in the monumental photos of the German school, for example, these works' attention to texture, pattern and scale have invoked painting more than photography. And the "believable fictions" photographers, with their staged scenarios and elaborate lighting, have re-conceived the medium as theater or cinema or television -- anything but photography qua photography.

One group, however, has continued to engage the camera's unique transparency to describe actual lived experience. These are the snapshot diarists.

How did their anachronistic realism survive the critical upheavals of postmodernism? Crucially, rather than disputing photography's biases, they have enfolded its objectivity in subjectivity. Diarists skirt issues of imperialism and objectification by turning their gaze inward: this is MY life, MY observation, MY reality. At the same time, they repudiate the notion of mastery with a pointedly amateur anti-aesthetic.

Without suggesting that this approach is new -- several street photographers, including Robert Frank and Gary Winogrand, pioneered the imprecise, first-person idiom -- what's clear is that their theoretical maneuvers are enormously well suited to the current cultural moment. Need evidence? Visit your local art school's photo department and compare the number of young autobiographers to the number of young documentarians.

Or simply turn on the television. In "reality" programs, as in diaristic photography, sensational subject matter -- sex, nudity, drugs and violence -- is inherent, the voyeuristic byproduct of a withdrawal into the strictly private realm. Television's deployment of the word "reality" in describing a patently unreal existence -- intrusive camera crews, canned confessions and elaborately contrived scenarios -- is also instructive here, as it helps explain the snapshot's shifting relationship to authenticity. The reality of today's photo diarists is deeply informed by existing images, and these artists concede that, due to what might be called the photographic Heisenberg principle, objective detachment is no longer an achievable goal, hence their freer hand with staging, styling and props.

Although their commitment to reportage has shifted, ultimately what separates diarists from other photographers is their mania, their obsession for capturing each microscopic flicker of emotional resonance illuminating their own lives. Nan Goldin, in the preface to her book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, explains, "People in the pictures say my camera is as much a part of being with me as any other aspect of knowing me. It's as if my hand were a camera. If it were possible, I'd want no mechanism between me and the moment of photographing. The camera is as much a part of my everyday life as talking or eating or sex."

Here, in these incursions into private emotional lives, lurks diaristic photography's power. Artwork that can convincingly render a specific social reality carries an enormous political weight, especially when that social reality encompasses marginalized groups and deviant lifestyles. Insofar as these photos are personal, they are political. Their message can be found in the incidental details of an often impoverished (in the bohemian sense) existence: dirty sheets, peeling wallpaper, hollow eyes.

The genre's latent politics, however, have been clouded since the 1990's, when, during the marketing industry's shift from selling products to selling lifestyles, the diaristic aesthetic infiltrated the commercial mainstream via fashion photography. More than being than just a facsimile of the snapshot technique, these glossy images were a rendering the genre's abjectness, filling Vogue with visions of stained carpets and red pupils. Their concreteness, a major departure from fashion's obligatory abstractions of beauty, generated both praise and indignation. Readers and cultural commentators alike sensed the political potential that clung to the snapshot aesthetic, and they pinned the style with the label "dirty realism" or, more dismissively, "heroin chic."

Many of the fashion photographers working in this style were diarists in the strict sense. Several, especially Corinne Day and Juergen Teller, demonstrated a commitment to ethical honesty that eventually translated into fine art success on an institutional level. Others, like Terry Richardson, carved out their own signature look within the snapshot genre but nonetheless suggested a calculated exploitation that failed to cross over. (Of course, not all photographers, snapshot or otherwise, look to art institutions for validation; success in the fashion industry is not without its own rewards.)

In large part because of this exposure, today's diaristic photography is miles away from where it was twenty-five years ago, when Goldin used her camera to hunt authentic moments of emotional intensity. Ryan McGinley, whose recent solo show at the Whitney Museum marked him as the latest successor to the diaristic tradition, describes his own work as a "diagram of an experience." His is a vision fed on mass-produced images: the aesthetics of skateboarding videos and amateur porn, the photo books of Larry Clark and Wolfgang Tillmans. What may look like offhand snaps of fleeting experiences are more often re-created -- even wholly invented -- moments of controlled spontaneity. It helps that the subjects in McGinley's photos are more savvy than the previous generation about the role of images in contemporary culture. "The camera is both a part of their lives and an accomplice in the construction of an identity for them as individuals and as an expression of the lifestyle of their generation," says curator Sylvia Wolf, who organized the Whitney exhibition. Furthermore, it should be noted that several of these young subjects are professional actors and models. Although McGinley's relationship to them is indisputably grounded more in friendship than professionalism, his photographs should be viewed as collaborative performances as much as records of a youthful existence.

That youth is such a common thread in diaristic photography is wholly appropriate, considering the genre's rhetoric of fleeting moments of discovery. In late-1990s Japan, a teenage girl who went by the name Hiromix achieved unprecedented nationwide fame with her snapshots of cherry blossoms, puddles, half-eaten breakfasts and, of course, herself, captured either in a mirror or with the camera held out at arm's length. It's no coincidence that the nation that invented the haiku -- and, not coincidentally, consumer photo equipment -- developed such a mania for the snapshots of a teenage schoolgirl.

The hand-held 35mm camera, the most portable, inexpensive and unobtrusive photo set-up on the market, has established the visual signature of the diarist: graininess, off-kilter composition, the high contrast of an on-camera flash, the murkiness of available light. Because it has long been the equipment families rely on to capture the incidental moments in their lives, its aesthetic has become the universal language of fleeting memories. While the versatile SLR was the camera of choice in the 1970s and 1980s, today's young diarists tend to favor "point-and-shoot" cameras (like the Yashica T4) for discreetness and ease of use.

The future of the snapshot, however, lies with digital technology. The in-camera editing features of digital cameras -- especially the delete function -- have opened up a new mania for diaristic exhaustiveness and chance composition. While the results are not always artistic, they are indisputably democratic, and as such they promise to re-shape the practice of diaristic photography at all levels.

To separate the good snapshots from the bad, the comparison to haiku is helpful, for what distinguishes successful snapshots is also what makes good poetry: sensibility. Behind all good poetry lurks a distinctive sensibility, someone with a knack for artfully arranging the details of lived experience. Both mediums' strength (and, often, their weakness) is their brevity, because it renders them an ideal outlet for half-formed emotional impressions. But just as online "photo blogs" continue to multiply, so too is there no sign of a decrease in the world's supply of terrible poetry.

Owing to its slightness, diaristic photography has something else in common with poetry: it works best in book form. The impact of Tulsa or The Ballad of Sexual Dependency has transcended any of their individual images. Like a real diary, these photos are simply more affecting in an intimate, portable format. The pages' sequential nature, furthermore, underscores the work's narrative element -- the cast of characters and their evolving relationships; their everyday joys, pains, triumphs and, sometimes, deaths. For these reasons, exhibiting diaristic photos can be a challenge. Their enlargement, moreover, is hindered by the relatively large grain of 35mm film. As a result, several photo diarists have searched out new guidelines for exhibiting their work. Nan Goldin came up with one novel solution by showing her photos as a slideshow with music. Wolfgang Tillmans, on the other hand, suspends his unmounted prints from binder clips, often accompanied by his magazine spreads, carefully cut out and pinned or taped to the wall.

Magazines still offer a crucial venue for snapshot diarists, not just in fashion but also in the grey area -- between fine and commercial art -- that has always been unique to photography. In the early 1990s Britain's i-D helped launch the careers of Wolfgang Tillmans and Corinne Day, while in the United States Peter Halley's Index has been instrumental in promoting the snapshot aesthetic, first with Tillmans and later with Leeta Harding and Ryan McGinley. The snapshot style retains a strong association with youth subculture and, by association, the slippery principle of "cool," making it ideally suited to lifestyle magazines. Currently, both France's Purple and America's Vice demonstrate a continued commitment to uncovering young photographers working in a diaristic mode, of which there looks to be no shortage.

In museums and galleries today, artists employ diaristic snapshots in tandem with other photographic practices, while several -- including Marcello Simeone, Giasco Bertoli and Richard Prince -- combine their snapshots with sculpture, painting and other media. For these artists, diaristic photography performs a multifaceted role. Certainly on the one hand it supports the mythic artist persona in all its bohemianism and internationalism (photos from airplane windows -- snapped while flying from studio to art fair to vernissage -- are excellent shorthand for rootless adventure of today's transcontinental artist's lifestyle). But more significantly, it represents a critical system for the artist to evaluate the visual world -- not the two-dimensional world of visual culture, but the jumble of contradictions that make up lived reality -- while actually moving through it, a quality that should prove indispensable to art's search for new realisms.

by Craig Garrett

[originally published in Flash Art no. 233 (November/December 2003)]

copyright 2003

at left, from top:

Hiromix, Untitled, 1998. C-print.

Nan Goldin, Getting High, New York City, 1979. C-print.

Ryan McGinley, Self-Portrait Root Canal, New York, 1999. C-print.

Corinne Day, Georgina, Brixton, 1993. C-print.

Hiromix, Untitled, 1998. C-print.

Nan Goldin, Self-Portrait In Bed, New York City, 1981. C-print.

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