The Diary Aesthetic: Raw & Gritty Photography Is Taking Center Stage

Although the idea behind the work isn’t new, many photographers are adopting the raw, gritty, and all-too-honest aesthetic of well-known photographers such as Ryan McGinley, Larry Clark, and Nan Goldin. You can’t browse Tumblr these days without coming across far too many photographs of beautiful, thin, nude people frolicking in the outdoors, disposable camera shots of drunken nights, and purposefully blurred and light-leaked film photographs. While these photographs have become increasingly saturated in the art world, it’s important to understand where this aesthetic came from, and take a look at the handful of photographers who started this new trend of gritty photography.

Ryan McGinley

Ryan McGinley—famous for photographing beautiful, nude, seemingly fearless young adults in various locations across the country—is the perfect example of this aesthetic. Not only is everyone unbelievably gorgeous, he also doesn’t worry too much about the camera he is using as much as the final image. He plays with light and color, always creating an image that seems almost dreamlike yet at the same time so unbelievably real and honest. Although his models are beautiful, they often have imperfections—ranging from large scratches to crooked teeth.

Photograph by Ryan McGinley

Photograph by Ryan McGinley

Photograph by Ryan McGinley

Photograph by Ryan McGinley

The varying tones and imperfect white balance speaks to the film aesthetic; since film is so unpredictable, the colors and tones of the image are also unpredictable. The unique colorcast of each image gives the photographs a more honest feel than they would have if they were all perfectly color corrected.

Larry Clark

If you’ve ever seen the movie Kids (or even heard about it), you’ll know that Larry Clark is one controversial guy. His bodies of work often show an unrestrained view of teenage life in rural areas. These teenagers are often depicted nude, doing drugs, having sex, and holding guns. His work is often referred to as voyeuristic and exploitative, although it can also be viewed as intimate and honest. While many photographers aim to copy the gritty photographs of Clark, he truly photographed from the inside. In the introduction to his photo book Tulsa, Clark says “When I was 16, I started shooting amphetamine…once the needle goes in, it never comes out.” While the photographs of his life in Tulsa, Oklahoma ultimately made him famous, the sex, drugs, and rock and roll lifestyle is not one to be reproduced by everyone.

Photograph by Larry Clark

Photograph by Larry Clark

Photograph by Larry Clark

Photograph by Larry Clark

Nan Goldin

If you think you’ve never heard of Nan Goldin, take a look at this image:

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Familiar? Nan Goldin always seems to be at the wrong place at the right time (for photography). She hung out around all of the wrong people, lived a less-than-fairytale life, and yet young photographers around the world constantly praise her photographs. She photographs every little thing in her life, no matter how gritty or painful it may be. This level of dedication to her work allowed her to create a large body of work that is essentially a journal of all of her experiences, one that she has decided to share with the world. It’s truly an honest, gritty life that cannot be reconstructed, no matter how many people try. There is no next Nan Goldin, there is only the Nan Goldin.

Since the Internet is so saturated with young photographers’ ‘journalistic’ images, peering into the intimate details of people’s mundane lives slowly becomes less and less exciting. However, when you peek into Goldin’s body of work, you can instantly tell that her life is anything but mundane. She fabricated nothing, she simply lays it all out on the table, not caring whether it is accepted or rejected.

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Photograph by Nan Goldin

Corinne Day

Corinne Day is another photographer known for her personal, diary-esque way of shooting. The snapshot aesthetic is abundant in her body of work, making it clear that instead of posing and constructing moments, she simply snapped photographs whenever and wherever it seemed fit. True to the gritty styles of Goldin and Clark, she leaves no subject untouched, no intimate moment left un-photographed.

Photograph by Corinne Day

Photograph by Corinne Day

Photograph by Corinne Day

Photograph by Corinne Day

This raw, journalistic aesthetic doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. While many new photographers are taking tips and styles from the pros—such as playing with cross-processed film, light leaks, and shooting on disposable cameras—many of them seem to be leaning towards the more beautiful aspects of life. Photographs of beautiful models wandering through forests and images of rumpled bed sheets litter the Internet, although there are those who feel as though they need to get a little grittier, a little more voyeuristic with their shots. Which photographer do you think most young photographers are mimicking these days? Does the fame of photographers such as Nan Goldin and Larry Clark somehow glorify the less-than-ideal lifestyles they have chosen? It is always interesting to think about what trend will come next.

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