Photographer Interviews

Rineke Dijkstra: Seeing is Believing

January 23, 2012

By Conor Risch

© Rineke Dijkstra/Courtesy of SFMOMA

"Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992," from Dijkstra's "Beach Portraits" series. To see more of her portraits, click on the Photo Gallery link below.

Ours is a divisive, celebrity-obsessed culture in which certain individuals are deified or prosecuted in the court of public opinion depending on the week, and we can all dream of being on reality TV. Half of us seem to go gaga over a celebrity’s every move, while the other half turns up their noses at the whole thing.

When Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s portraiture was first recognized in the mid-1990s, our culture was different. It was pre-social media, pre-24-hour news cycle, pre-Internet (at least, as we know it today). Dijkstra’s large-scale photographs of adolescents on beaches, made in several countries, were celebrated for the respect and empathy with which they treated young people at one of the most vulnerable stages in their lives.

In the 20 years since she began her series “Beach Portraits,” Dijkstra has shown her work in galleries and museums throughout the world. This month, a mid-career retrospective of Dijkstra’s portraits and video work will open at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, then travel to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City later this year. In many ways, there could be no better time for audiences to revisit or get to know Dijkstra’s work.

“We live in a culture that’s really about celebrities, and Rineke is not interested in that,” says Sandra S. Phillips, photography curator at SFMOMA. “She’s just interested in regular, ordinary people… There’s a very secure egalitarianism in this work and in her. And I think it’s kind of revelatory.”

“Her work is almost like an antidote,” says Jennifer Blessing, senior photography curator at the Guggenheim Museum. “We’re so overwhelmed by images, not only of celebrities but of people trying to posture as celebrities or self-market, that having representations where that is really not what it’s about—personally I find the images very attractive for that reason.”

Dijkstra perceived early manifestations of celebrity culture in the teenagers she encountered on a trip to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, in 1992, where she made the first pictures in her “Beach Portraits” series. In photographing these young Americans, Dijkstra “realized how much the media played a role in how people think about how they want to be photographed,” she recalls during an interview with PDN in late November.

After her time in South Carolina, Dijkstra photographed young people on beaches in Poland before returning home to Holland. “In Poland it was the opposite. It reminded me of the Sixties, going back in time,” she explains. “America was going forward. Suddenly I saw that you can say things and tell things about people’s culture, where they come from, just by focusing on how they appear.”

Dijkstra was also drawn to the minimalism of the beach setting. “I realized if you strip everything away, with no backgrounds and just the sea and sky and a bathing suit, it’s only about the pose and stance of people… if somebody is making a little gesture or has a ring on, you see it because there’s nothing else in the picture to look at.” Small details were paramount, and they meant the difference between successful and unsuccessful images.

“I was always trying to find an uninhibited moment, because when you work with a really big camera on a tripod people get nervous,” Dijkstra explains. She has used the same 4 x 5 field camera for her entire career as a fine artist. “It’s sort of a contradiction to try to photograph something real using this impossible camera.” When she is making an image she will step away from the camera and speak with her subjects, directing them a bit and asking them to hold a pose she likes while she goes through the two-minute process of capturing the image. The camera and the deliberate way she works encourages the subject to concentrate, she explains.

Dijkstra takes notes on each of her subjects and will make marks in her notebook if she feels a particular image was strong, but, she admits, “you can’t tell exactly.” When she edits her photographs she remembers her impressions of her subjects, but “the encounter is different than looking at the image later on. In the end,” she says, “I am looking at the image.”

One of the sunbathers she photographed in Poland, a girl in a green swimsuit, made a particularly strong impression on her, reminding her of a Renaissance beauty. “I hoped so much that [the picture] was going to be good,” she recalls. “I took four pictures. The three other ones were not good at all. [For] the last one, I asked her to twist her head a little bit. It was a really nice line. It changed the composition and made an image out of it.”

Dijkstra eventually travelled to Belgium, England, Ukraine and Long Island, New York, to create further beach portraits, aided by an arts grant from the Dutch government.

Before she began the series, she was working as an editorial photographer. A teacher at her art school, the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, who was also an art director for a business magazine, hired her to make portraits, and she parlayed that work into other portrait commissions.

Prior to entering art school she had taken photography workshops with Hans Aarsman at de Moor photography center in Amsterdam, where she was part of a community of “very serious young photographers,” she says. Her first exhibition, featuring photographs of clubgoers, was held there in 1984. Yet when she graduated from art school in 1986, Dijkstra did not feel she could pursue a career as a fine-art portrait photographer. Dutch art photographers in the 1980s were staging their photographs, and it was “not my thing,” Dijkstra recalls. “I didn’t feel like a documentary photographer either. I really felt like a portrait photographer and somehow there was not that much space [in the art world] for what I was doing.”

In 1990 Dijkstra was involved in a bicycle accident that changed her perspective. She was hit by a car and forced to spend nearly half a year in bed, and several months more recuperating through physical therapy. “I was out of the [editorial] business. [Clients] knew it was going to take a year before I could do anything and it was for me a really good point to say, ‘I want to give myself a chance,’” she says. She applied for and received an arts grant through the Dutch government and was on her way.

As Phillips notes in her essay for the catalogue that accompanies Dijkstra’s exhibition, the arts milieu in Holland and the new status photography had achieved in the art world—thanks in large part to the work of German photographers and teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher and their students, such as Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff—created a fertile environment that helped Dijkstra to gain recognition and thrive.

“Rineke’s work became very well known… in the context of the photographers from Germany who were printing large-scale, beautiful color images,” Blessing explains. The size at which Dijkstra printed her photographs (the largest of her beach portraits are 50 x 60 inches) and the meticulousness of her prints not only made them captivating to look at, but conveyed the concern she felt for her subjects.

About printing, Dijkstra says: “I think it’s so important to be precise, to give the smallest details so much attention that [the photograph] becomes monumental, that it becomes a monument for that specific person.”

The recognition Dijkstra received for her fine-art work also led to commissions for publications like The New York Times Magazine and W magazine. Last year Dijkstra photographed a group of young actresses for W. “The difficult thing is there’s always these people [publicists, managers and so forth] around them,” she recalls. “They can’t be photographed without makeup and there has to be a stylist. It’s absolutely not the way I like to work. In the end it was a really nice series,” she admits. “But I took one photograph of Georgie Henley and I just grabbed her before she went into makeup and I think that was my favorite picture.”

In 1997 her beach images were included in “New Photography 13” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, and the following year Phillips selected a dozen of those photographs for an exhibition at SFMOMA. The museum also acquired Dijkstra’s “The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World, Zaandam, NL,” a video installation Dijkstra created of clubgoers in Liverpool, England, and Zaandam, the Netherlands, in an improvised studio. Presented on two screens with club music as a soundtrack, the piece allows viewers to focus on details of gesture, dress and expression.

Soon after she made “Buzz Club,” Dijkstra created a second video piece, “Annemiek (I Wanna Be With You)” for which she asked a teenage girl to lip synch her favorite song in front of a camera against a seamless white background. The girl is the epitome of teenage awkwardness, and the video runs for the entirety of the track.

Reactions from viewers have ranged from discomfort to appreciation. One friend told Dijkstra that watching “Annemiek” made her want to cry, while another considers the work voyeuristic. “It’s very sensitive,” Dijkstra admits, but one can’t account for the perspective of each viewer. “I’m the only one who can judge it for myself.”

“I don’t like my work to be voyeuristic,” Dijkstra adds. She says she is influenced by Diane Arbus, about whom she wrote her thesis on in art school. “For me, [Arbus is] always on the good side. If you go on the wrong side it becomes voyeuristic.” If she begins to feel her work is edging close to being disrespectful, she says, she will find another way to approach a subject.

This desire to remain “on the good side” has defined her work. Dijkstra empathizes with her subjects and tries to show what she sees to the viewer. Talking about the girl in the green swimsuit that made such a big impression on her, for instance, she says: “I think that she was really shy, and I think you can see that in the photograph. But it’s also my shyness that I recognize in her. I’m able to recognize and photograph it, so there is an understanding. What else can I do? How can I see anything if I don’t recognize it?”

Some men have had difficulty looking at another of Dijkstra’s series, her photographs of mothers posing with their newborn babies just hours, and in one case minutes, after they gave birth. The images of mothers standing naked with their red-hued children against stark white backdrops are beautiful and brutal. One woman wears underwear that is padded, we imagine, to soak up blood. She notes, “Women thank me for these pictures because it’s the truth.”

But these photographs, like the beach portraits or her video pieces, are not about mothers or sunbathers or club kids. “It’s always [about] movement,” she says. “I’m a person who likes the process of things. I like it when things are not fixed. I don’t like to have preconceived ideas, for instance. Photography helps me with that, because when you make a photograph of somebody you have to open yourself up. If you’re not really interested, you can never make a good portrait. And somehow you start to understand things because you really want to.”

Her ability to understand and empathize with her subjects hasn’t always come easily; she is, at times, driven to photograph things she doesn’t like or relate to. During the Second Intifada between Israel and Palestine, Dijkstra worked on a series of portraits of young Israeli men and women carrying out their mandatory military service. She had her own strong opinions about the conflict, and she found that “people really closed up” if she tried to discuss what was going on. Through her work she found, especially with the young women, that “they’re just like girls in Holland, like everywhere. They’re not so different, and I thought [it] was good to see that.” In addition to photographing the soldiers in their uniforms, she also photographed many of them in their regular clothing, and showed some of these works as diptychs.

“You have a lot of preconceptions about a specific group or specific people,” Dijkstra explains, “and I think with photography, you 
really focus on that person and maybe what you first see is indeed that vulnerability, which I don’t necessarily want to photograph, but which makes them empathetic, makes them accessible somehow, and that’s how you connect, in that vulnerability.”

Whether she is making portraits of Israeli soldiers, children or adolescents in a Berlin park, or bloodied and bruised matadors just out of the ring, Dijkstra says the key to any project is that “You have to find a form. You have to really think about it, what it means to [you], and it’s more than just taking pictures. You have to find a structure [for the investigation], which sometimes isn’t possible.”

One compelling, recent video piece is a case in point. For the work “I See a Woman Crying (The Weeping Woman),” Dijkstra used three cameras to film a group of school children at the Tate Liverpool in England as they looked at and discussed Picasso’s cubist painting “The Weeping Woman.” “They are influencing each other, and I thought the structure that I found was really successful.”

Dijkstra considers herself a humanist. She also believes that she has contributed in some way to her viewers’ understanding of others. “I think I found a language, how to show things, that can make you look at things in a slightly different way than what you’re used to,” she says.

Phillips notes that, through her large-scale prints, which recall 18th and 19th century portraits that were made to exalt royalty—the celebrities of their time—Dijkstra is “valorizing the ordinary person, the tenuous personality, the person who is going through an adjustment in life, and through growth. I think that’s kind of amazing.”

Could there be a better time to celebrate and learn from her work?

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