The diaristic approach in art photography

by Cecilie Oedegaard

Ever since viewing Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency the diaristic approach to photography has intrigued me. With this post I decided to take a closer look at work created within this subgenre, both by contemporary photographers as well as by the genre’s pioneers.

Many self-scrutinising portraits utilize a diary-like style that adopts the aesthetics of the casual family snapshot or the quick-fire photography of reportage. The work of the two American photographers Larry Clark (b. 1943) and Nan Goldin (b. 1953) has been hugely influential in establishing an informal diaristic style as a legitimate fine-art form. Both of these photographers have produced large bodies of work consisting of frank and intimate portraits and self-portraits that explore the gritty and bohemian life of those around them using their friends as stand-ins for their families in these autobiographical ‘albums’.

Larry Clark created the controversial body of work titled Tulsa in 1971, a collection of black and white images portraying the life of young people in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The work is said to have caused a sensation within the photography community leading to a new interest in autobiographical work. Clark’s images portray scenes of young people having sex, shooting up drugs, and playing with guns. Clark has said that he "didn't take these photographs as a voyeur, but as a participant in the phenomenon", and commentary on his book Tulsa emphasize that Clark did not just live with the teenagers portrayed but "did drugs with them, slept with them, and included himself in the photographs’’ which conferred an authenticity on the work, further bringing it great praise.


Nan Goldin's body of work titled The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is a slideshow consisting of nearly 700 snapshot-like portraits sequenced against an evocative music soundtrack. Similarly to Clark’s work, Goldin’s series presents intense, intimate moments from her life, living in New York during the 1970s and 80s. With her social portraiture approach she documents love, pain, fluid sexuality, glamour, beauty, domestic violence, intoxication, AIDS and death through her imagery. The Ballad of Sexual Dependency is the diary I let people read,” Goldin wrote. “The diary is my form of control over my life. It allows me to obsessively record every detail. It enables me to remember.” Goldin further said about herself in an interview that her skills within photography is in the slideshows and in the narratives rather than making perfect images. It is in the groupings of work and in the relationships she has with people. I think her work captures a world that is universally human although highly personal.

Goldin_the ballad_1.jpeg

Speaking about work within the diaristic subgenre that has been created in more recent time, I wanted to mention the project titled My Little Dead Dick. This was a year-long collaboration between photographers (also a couple) Patrick Tsai and Madi Ju. The project begun in 2006 as an online diary through which the couple shared intimate moments and everyday happenings from their life. The two photographers first met through a photosharing website. They started dating, fell in love, moved in together and started documenting their lives together. They started uploading photographs to the photo sharing site as well as to their own blog and very quickly got a captive audience following their bitter sweet love affair and the ups and downs that characterize any relationship. What differentiated this work from the thousands of digital snapshots on sites like Flickr is the fact that the couple were both skilled photographers developing the project knowing it was an artistic endeavour rather than a collection of randomly posted photos. The images, both portraits and self-portraits were carefully composed and edited. Furthermore the images were shot on film and not digital although the online presentation failed to show that. The project ended with the love affair, but during that year when it blossomed, the project developed a cult status and received critical recognition attracting followers who devoted space for the photographs on their own websites and blogs.

Collage_from_ my_little_dead_dick.jpeg

It’s comforting to see that in our time with amateur snapshots being ubiquitous on social media, imagery created within the diaristic tradition by skilled photographers is still being differentiated, valued and appreciated as real works of art.


Sources cited;

Autofocus, The Self-portrait in Contemporary photography by Susan Bright


Quoted in "Larry Clark - Tulsa 1971",

Parr and Badger, The Photobook vol. 1, p.260