Rineke Dijkstra

Posted on August 14, 2011


I have been thinking for some time about what area of study I should decide on for my Open College of the Arts Level 3 Advance course. In this module I will have to:

  • Design an extended programme of personal study in discussion with your tutor
  • Produce a strong portfolio of photography in your chosen genre
  • Carry out appropriate research
  • Read extensively in your genre
  • Complete an extended written assignment (5,000 words).
So the question is what genre to select. I have allowed my thinking to evolve over time and I must confess that I am still undecided!! That said, I have developed a fascination with photographers who work ‘in series’. What do I mean by this? Well a series of photographs is a set of photographs which are linked through an overarching theme and a common set of formal parameters. In a series, photographs enjoy equal status and are not organised into a distinct sequence or narrative. The series relies on repetition and variations drawing attention to commonalities and variations within a set of formal constants.This approach is applied across a wide range of motif’s.
I have yet to decide on my particular area of study. However, I am most interested in portraiture, landscapes, interiors and architectural work – as evidenced by the photobooks that I have collected. August Sander’s ‘People of the 20th Century’ is perhaps the pre-eminent example of such work in terms of portraiture. Sander’s aim was to produce a photographic record of the German population between the great wars of the 20th century.

I have started to ‘read in’ to the subject of photography ‘in series’. I have identified a number of photographers who have produced such work in the area of portraiture.  Amongst these are Sander, Bernhard Fuchs, Heinrich Riebesehl, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth, Helmar Lerski, Tsuneo Enari, Hans-Peter Feldman, Stefan Moses, Judith Joy Ross, Irving Penn, Richard Avedon and Rineke Dijkstra. To some extent the work of Diane Arbus and Nan Goldin might also be included in this genre.

The first book I have looked at it ‘Portraits’ by Rineke Dijkstra. Dykstra’s portraits explore people in transition – women who have just given birth, young people who have joined the Israeli army, young adolescents and such like. She is interested in the idea of ‘mutation’ – how people in transition change. She explores this by producing series of portraits. Her work employs a constant formal approach which is low key almost deadpan in nature. Her subjects are centrally placed in the frame, the backgrounds are generally featureless and slightly out of focus, the lighting is flat. It seems that she seeks to remove photographic expressiveness to allow the viewer to form his or her own view. The subject’s poses can be referenced to classical works, for example in her ‘Beach Portraits’ series the young girls depicted are often compared with Botticelli’s Venus. Dijkstra looks for an ‘uninhibited’ moment trying to catch her subjects when their thoughts are drifting elsewhere. She does not overly direct her subjects and allows the outcome of her work to evolve from the photographs themselves as opposed to prescribing the results she is looking for in advance. When editing her images she looks for images with something special – a ‘moment’. This is usually a gaze or gesture which distinguishes the portrait.

When one looks at the series of portraits one starts to see elements of commonality and areas of difference. Refering to the ‘Beach Portraits’ again, a sense of uncertainty in the adolescent subjects is apparent in most of the portraits. However, there are clear cultural differences in evidence. The children from the USA seem more conscious of ‘how they look’. They wear jewellery, fashionable clothing and have ‘adult’ hair-do’s. The east european children seem much less self conscious and more natural. One also gets a sense of the individual from their posture and gaze. I like this idea of identifying areas of commonality, alongside cultural and individual differences. Photography Now has copies of Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits here.