‘There is a pervasive tendency to claim that Dijkstra’s greatest work is that which most readily evokes classical models, as if photography has any more need to justify itself than do the awkward and unfinished facts of the lives it depicts. The images from Bathers, as prime examples of what’s most essential and powerful about Dijkstra’s work, propose a new form of portraiture that is neither overly mannered in the traditional mode nor so emptied of humanity as to be meaningless. Their brute plainness challenges our ability to look at them, to only look, without the additional armatures of context or concept. The very quality that unnerves and misleads so many viewers—the apparent vacuity that can push you to exasperation—is their stealthy strength. They feel moronic in the best way possible: purposefully and intelligently so. Counter to the predominant lavender view, Dijkstra’s work could well be considered the cornerstone of this bleak but affirmative strike for photography’s future. Hers is a forced imposition of the visual void, one in line with Thomas Struth’s street scenes, Gerhard Richter’s obliterated postcard landscapes, and Bruce Nauman’s videos, a heroic and conscious refusal, a vanguard of the retarded.’ — Gil Blank, Influence Magazine
* Rineke Dijkstra @ Marian Goodman Gallery
* Jennifer Higgie on RD @ Frieze
* ‘What’s in a Portrait? Rineke Dijkstra’s Almerisa’
* ‘Rineke Dijkstra’s Best Shot’
* RD interviewed
* ‘Why is she weeping? Rineke Dijkstra’s Liverpool videos’
* RD @ Facebook
Rineke Dijkstra & Hans den Hartog Jager: “The Dutch Tradition of Portraiture”
How did your 1990 Beach Portraits come about?
Rineke Dijkstra: I grew up in a small town three kilometers from the beach. I was always intrigued by the fact that the sea appears in so many variations in light and color which made it look different every time I went there. After the self-portrait in the swimming pool, everything came together. I was fascinated by finding a natural pose and my previous interest brought me back to the beach; I started to make portraits of people in their bathing suits. First, I took a lot of pictures in The Netherlands. I didn’t just want to photograph young people. But one of my first pictures was of a 13-year-old girl — just at that age when childhood turns into adulthood — and that was quite beautiful. Later, a friend of mine invited me to Hilton Head Island in South Carolina and I took my camera. I realized how American culture differed from The Netherlands. Whereas the Dutch were very down-to-earth, and not very glamorous, Hilton Head was a wealthy family resort and it was all about body culture and glamour. I thought they read all these fashion magazines and wanted to look like that.
After that, I decided I’d like to go to Russia, because it would be the opposite of America. In the end, I went to Poland instead, and it was like going back in time. It felt like the 60s, from what I remembered from my youth. Actually, in Poland I realized that something else had to happen in my pictures; the fact that I wasn’t giving people much direction didn’t necessarily result in a good image. I needed another kind of tension, something in their pose or gaze, that distinguished them from others. I learned that could be hidden in the smallest details.
I started to photograph all kinds of people, but the children and teenagers represented a kind of uncertainty, their emotions were so much more on the surface. There was an openness. Older people already have a sort of fixed personality. With younger people it’s more flexible, everything is still potential. That space of being is not fixed yet, that’s what interested me.
Were there clear differences between the young people you photographed in the U.S. and Poland?
RD: Maybe the Polish people were less self-conscious and more shy. It was 1992, around three years after the wall came down in Berlin, so there was still a very communistic feel. There was still a lack of fashion. They didn’t have MTV yet.
How did the young people you approached respond to having their picture taken?
RD: Because I work with this 4 x 5 inch camera on a tripod, which looks like it’s 100 years old, people were sort of fascinated. Sometimes in Poland, people were super excited and they’d be a crowd of people around me. Working with this large format camera helped me to accomplish a kind of concentration; people understood this was not a snapshot.
How much direction do you give your subjects?
RD: I am always looking for a natural pose, so I always talk to them and observe them at the same time. I try to bring them to ease and make them feel comfortable. There should be a moment when there’s a lack of inhibition.
Since you began Beach Portraits, teenagers have started to photograph themselves so much more, because of camera phones. Have you felt any shift in the way your subjects interact with you?
RD: Maybe young people are more self-assured now, and less afraid of cameras. But it’s hard to say because I’m not from that generation myself. Yes, people take a lot of selfies now, but you never can really control your own image. Maybe people do know more what they look like now.
I love your video pieces of dancing clubbers. They’re like time capsules of the mid 90s but they also capture that universal feeling of losing yourself while dancing. How did you move into video work?
RD: I had been photographing at schools for a project in Liverpool. My assistant and I were in our early 30s and we were really into clubbing. We’d heard about Cream in Liverpool and wanted to go but there was such a huge queue. So we asked a taxi driver to bring us somewhere else. He dropped us at The Buzz Club. It was really a club for 15-year-old girls! I’d never seen something like that before. They were standing in the queue for half an hour in only little dresses and no coats. I was totally intrigued by that. I thought I should just ask the manager if I could take photos. He said, Sure! I mean this was a long time ago, more than 20 years ago. I started to photograph people with a white background in a room at the back of the club. On the dancefloor, there was the music, people smoking, the DJ announcing birthdays — I couldn’t capture that in a picture. A friend suggested I try video. I had no idea about filming, but I bought a small Sony camcorder, which gave me new possibilities.
I like to work that way. You have to start somewhere. If you overthink everything, you’ll never do anything. I like it when ideas come from just working on something, there is always a lot of improvisation involved. When I had all the footage, I thought I should go to another club, in the Netherlands, and finally I worked with these so-called “gabbers” [Dutch hardcore techno fans]. The Buzz Club was all about the girls who were in charge, but the gabbers were mainly guys. They were really tough, and the club was absolutely not my piece of cake, but it was a good contrast. The piece ended up being a double-screened projection, describing the course of a night.
How cooperative were the gabbers?
RD: They look pretty scary but they were quite nice. Though, after three o’clock I couldn’t work with them anymore because they were numbed by drugs and alcohol. I always had to go home quite early.
It’s amazing how much, in the park photo series, light becomes a character or an attribute of your characters.
RD: I’m much more precise now. In some of the beach portraits, there’s a flash. And here, I try to keep the natural light and just use a fill-in. So I’m pretty precise in trying to get that [atmosphere]. You don’t really feel the flash so much here, do you?
No, you don’t. In the beach portraits, the light is so stark, almost like a barricade. In encountering the figure, you have to also confront the light. Whereas here, it’s more …
RD: Here, it’s much more like [the subject becomes] one with the landscape.
This is where painting comes to mind, especially in the photo of the girl in the red dress and the boy, Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.
RD: Yes, she’s sitting the same way. It’s a total coincidence.
So you didn’t construct the park portrait compositions?
RD: No. When I took those pictures, I was quite relaxed because it was a warm day, on a Friday afternoon, and I was walking around with my camera and an assistant. It was really crowded in the park and these kids were just sitting there. I thought, “Let’s see if we can do something,” and it was funny because they were not very interested.
Do you ever find it difficult to approach subjects? Do you ever get nervous about it, or are you just used to it by now?
RD: I’m used to it, and I feel that people also like it. They’re flattered. For instance, in that picture you mentioned, there was this family in the park: this girl and two of her sisters, who were much younger than her, and their mother. The girl was really surprised that I was interested in her. They thought I wanted to photograph the baby. What I like so much is that because her dress is red—can you imagine if this dress had been black or green?—all the attention goes to her, and he is sort of admiring her. If it was the opposite, if she was wearing black and he red, that would have been a totally different picture.
It’s so different from the schoolboy. Even though she’s framed by the foliage, she’s just completely open, and she owns it.
RD: Yeah, it is her picture.
p.s. Hey. Today the respected and excellent art critic and curator and DC’s reader Jane Nixon has commandeered my galerie space to give you a pop up exhibition of Rineke Dijkstra’s photographs. It’s, need I even say, a killer show, so please wander about and absorb things and say hi and/or thanks to Jane in your comments if you don’t mind. Thanks, and thank you ever so much, Jane. ** David Ehrenstein, So how did you celebrate your birthday IRL? With the gift of that no doubt excellent book at the very least, I see. I didn’t dislike ‘The Ghost Writer’, it just didn’t excite me at all. ** Steve Erickson, Yes, TOPY was … complicated, let’s say. Cool that you got the work done. The spruced up apartment seems to suit you then. How’s the new Ken Loach? Everyone, Steve Erickson has reviewed the great (in my opinion) newest film ‘Vitalina Varela’ by the very great filmmaker Pedro Costa. Here. ** Sypha, Consider the blog your b’day party’s destination if you like. ** _Black_Acrylic, Howdy, Ben. I’m gonna check out that PSB cover too. ** Misanthrope, Hi, G. I’m guessing or hoping or both that it’s your less necessary arm? That’s a lot of chapters! Well, then you must feel like a pig in clover when you’re on Facebook these days since it’s where common sense goes to die. ** Armando, Hi there, Armando. I’ve been mostly pretty good, thanks. You? I’ll check my email and find out what you’re talking about. Good day and good luck to you! ** Okay. Please spend a lovely and attentive time in Jane Nixon’s galerie-shaped gift today if you haven’t already. See you tomorrow.