BARRIE LYNN BRYANT’S diary isn’t like your diary or my diary. There are no self-effacing, scribbled lines in looping hand, no half-formed thoughts about a given day’s personal hurts or dreams or triumphs. In fact, the work fits few of the parameters of what’s traditionally understood to be a “diary”: It’s first and foremost a visual record, with very little writing, save for the captions. The images that it comprises are concerned with other people, moments in their lives that Barrie happened to play witness to. And what’s more, as he made clear in a public exhibition of the work in October 1992—and again in July 2018, when he started posting previously unpublished work to his Instagram—this diary was made for public consumption.
To be sure, the images from those years, 1989 to 1995, are personal in the sense that Barrie was behind the camera and that they reflect his perspective, his outlook and where he was in that particular moment. But they’re not explicitly about him. Nearly three decades later, those photographs have been elevated beyond street scenes and event photos, taking on a cast of timeless significance, a bit of the historical record bottled into images, an accounting of who we once were.
You might argue that it was, and is, the public’s diary.
BORN IN PINE BLUFF in 1965 and raised in Little Rock’s Heights neighborhood, Barrie joined the Marines in 1984, specializing in amphibious reconnaissance (scuba diving, jumping out of planes and, as he describes it, “fancy stuff, high-speed kind of stuff”). By the time he enlisted, he’d already started to develop an interest in photography, thanks to a Texas-based aunt who gifted him her old Nikon F2. While in the service, he put that interest into practice, convincing his superiors that imagery could be used in reconnaissance. On training operations, he’d take his camera into the field and photograph his fellow marines as they were on ships or rappelling. (He’d eventually go on to teach a course on underwater photography.)
Upon returning home to Arkansas in 1988, he started coursework at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, where a class on the history of photography broadened his understanding as to what was possible with his newfound artistic medium. Under the tutelage of professor Gary Cawood, Barrie learned about the likes of Lee Friedlander and Robert Frank and Eugene Smith, landmark photographers whose work throughout the 20th century showed a different aspect of the country’s “social landscape.”
Thus inspired, he took his cameras—the Nikon, a Minox subminiature and a large-format 11-by-14 view camera, among others—and started traveling the state, to festivals, to small towns, to England, to Altheimer, to Warren, anywhere that people might be gathered. When photographing events, he’d show up early, leave after everything was through, searching out what he says his wife calls, “the scene after the scene.” The images that he produced in those years are, to put it briefly, people-focused. For the most part, they represent moments in people’s lives that, because the moment is inherently so fleeting, seldom get captured: the punchline of a joke, a look of awe as a parade goes by, a girl on a playground swing at the farthest extreme of its orbit. They also reflected something that, as Barrie said so many years later, was somewhat uncommon at the time.
“I remember when I was doing it, people would be like, Why are you photographing those people? Who are those people?” Barrie says. “It was more interesting to me to photograph people who were unnoticed and places that were unnoticed.”
After roughly three years of that work, in October 1992, he had a solo show of his work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock’s gallery No. 3, a large second-story space with some 40-odd images hung on the walls. And when it came time to figure out what to call the exhibit, he settled on the name.
“I thought, Well, gosh, what is the collective idea here?” he says. “And I referred to it as the Arkansas Diaries, as if the people and the places and the things all have a story, and so do I. It’s all very personal, and sometimes even private.”
A FEW YEARS, having grown tired and frustrated with the South, Barrie and his wife, the artist AB Word, left Arkansas for Kirby, Wyoming, then population 57, (it’s since grown to 92, he says, speaking from their landline). From the handful of images that he’s posted from those early years, you can tell it must’ve been a shock for someone who’d spent untold hours photographing people to land in a state where, as a friend had told him before the move, there were roughly four people per square mile.
Although he continued his photography work, in the late ’90s, he started a different, oddly complementary line of work in order to make things work financially: frames—specifically, carved, gilded frames for his wife’s artwork.
In that sense, when you consider everything that’s changed, the photos seem to represent a completely different lifetime for the artist and, for that matter, the medium itself, with the rise of digital media and the relegation of the darkroom to niche use. Yet, when he talks about his work from those years in Arkansas, it’s with the specificity and detail that defy the years, that makes it sound as if the photographs had just been shot yesterday.
It’s clear, then, in reflecting on this, that these images are as perfect a diary as you’re liable to come by: It’s a way of remembering what it was like to be that person he was, to remember the people who crossed his path, to stand in the shoes of his much younger self, if only for a moment.
River Wall Run (1992)
“I frequented Helena, where I made this image of a boy running atop the levee and river retaining wall. I especially liked attending the King Biscuit Blues Festival each year, then driving from Helena to Marianna through the St. Francis National Forest on the dirt road. Festivals and concerts were usually great places to photograph people, since a guy with a camera didn’t seem all that out of place. When I began revisiting my Arkansas Diaries 1989-1994 portfolio about six years ago, I discovered quite a number of negatives that I either hadn’t given much consideration to or even printed. This image is one that I had proof printed, but never considered much beyond that. Looking at it today, it’s hard to believe I didn’t exhibit it back when I made it. I have a good number of images in this category. Darkroom work is far more difficult and time consuming than digital imaging. Not that I wasn’t invigorated by doing my own darkroom work back then. I loved every hour of it. In order to see a negative image back then, it had to be printed somehow. I think that concept kept a lot of people away from photography as an art form.”
Sunday Morning at Big Flat (1992)
“The day after I photographed at Bean Fest in Mountain View, I drove some unpaved back roads, then on to some out-of-the-way places. Needing fuel, I stopped to get gas at a small old country convenience store and discovered two young girls sitting on a bench next to the station. It turned out that one of them lived next to the station and that her parents operated it. What helped me notice them is they were throwing small rocks at some dogs to keep them away from a litter of kittens. When I talked with them about it, the one girl ran the kittens into her house and returned to ask me, ‘Do you want to see the funniest thing I ever saw?’ And then she and her friend walked me through backyards and over a few fences to see the scene, which within a few short minutes developed into my photograph Sunday Morning at Big Flat.”
The Daughters of Ester Beal (1992)
“I attended Blossom Festival in Magnolia three years in a row during my Arkansas Diaries period as an exhibitor in their arts and crafts festival and to photograph the people there. I first photographed Ester Beal when she was pregnant with this child, but I’ve never shared that photograph with anyone. I think this portrait I’ve titled The Daughters of Ester Beal is one of my best photographs I made in Arkansas.”
Happiness is Dancing the Blues (1991)
“This couple had a great time showing off while dancing at a blues concert at Hestand Stadium in Pine Bluff. I think the woman became inhibited by my camera since I was so close to them, and that was brought on by my preference of using a wide-angle lens, which requires me to be close to the action.”
Elliott Dean (1990)
“May 1990: This photograph of Elliott Dean launched my sporadic editorial career by winning the Arkansas Times photo contest that year. I made this image of Elliott during the Blossom Festival in Magnolia, where I was also exhibiting my photographs in their arts and crafts festival. Early in the afternoon, a quick rainstorm passed through town, and Elliott had to quickly move his things from a table up the courthouse steps to protect them from the rain. Immediately after the rain, he began fiddling again, which lifted everyone’s spirit. I visited Elliott several times over the next few years and photographed him at his home as well.”
RIP Robert Junior, 1915-2006 (1992)
“I shared this image of Delta blues artist Robert Lockwood Jr. for the first time last year. I made it in Helena, Arkansas, during the King Biscuit Blues Festival while Lockwood was relaxing backstage before his concert. To make this photograph, I knelt at his feet and said that I’d like to make a photo of him. He nodded, and I proceeded as he looked toward the river levee. The camera I used was an early model Leicaflex, which wasn’t equipped with a split-image prism focus finder, plus the light was dim since the sun had moved below the oaks and pines. I made this frame and then another, both of which suffer from slightly soft focus. In the second frame, he’s just taken a drink of water from the bottle he’s wiping off in this first frame. I might have been a little more nervous than he was about this moment. I was so close to him, really in his personal space. I quickly stood and thanked him. When I wrote about this photograph for the first time last year, I was unusually overcome with emotion about my memory of it and my life as a photographer in Arkansas.”
“My brother and I were driving near Bigelow while he was visiting for Christmas. When we heard a loud gunshot, I quickly pulled over and grabbed my camera and said I wanted to find the source and take pictures of whatever it was all about. I walked behind this house and discovered a youth with his grandfather shooting cans. I asked about photographing them, then made this photograph that I titled Monarch.”
Mr. Frank and His Wood Shop (1991)
“I made this image of Mr. Frank and His Wood Shop in Altheimer using an old Crown Graphic 4×5 view camera on my second visit to see him. The other man introduced himself as Brother Wesley Russell, born Dec. 19, 1919. My father loved this image most of all my Arkansas Diaries. Due to limited space, I’m not able to show photographs I made in Altheimer’s Foxy Lounge during winter 1993. While in the night club, I learned that Mr. Frank had recently died. His home was actually across the alley directly behind the Foxy Lounge, and I went back there to see it, only to discover that all the signs, tools and his whirligig airplane were all gone. I certainly didn’t know when I made this photograph that I would become an independent professional woodworker making fine picture frames a few years after moving to Wyoming from Arkansas in October 1994.”