Rineke Dijkstra Exhibition at the Guggenheim New York

Posted on September 10, 2012


I recently passed through New York for a few days whilst visiting the USA. Luckily there is currently an retrospective exhibition of Rineke Dijkstra on show at the Guggenheim. I spent a few hours there looking at her work. It was a great experience as I have studied her work quite a bit during the Advanced module and regard her as a key influence on my work. I have previously written a review of her book ‘Portraits’ in this blog (here) . This post sets out my further thoughts having seen much of her work now ‘in the flesh’.

The exhibition was located in rooms on on four floors of the gallery showing 71 photographs and five videos. The photographs are all large – about 40×50 inches. They were framed and shown behind glass. The exhibition included work from all her main series: Beach Portraits (1992-2002), Streets (1993-1996), Bullfighters (1994, 2000), New Mothers (1994), Tia(1994), Almerisa (1994- ), The BuzzClub/Mystery World (1996-97), Parks (1998 – 2006), Israeli Soldiers (1999-2003), Ruth Drawing Picasso and I see a Woman Crying(Weeping Woman) (2009).

Dijkstra uses a large format camera which slows the process down and requires lots of concentration from both the photographer and sitter. In the video accompanying the show she indicates that this adds an air of seriousness to the process which seems to me to be reflected in the way in which the sitters respond. She also talks about waiting for a time when the sitter’s thoughts start to wander and they are no longer as self conscious about their pose…this is something which I have been trying to emulate with my portraits of ‘ironman’ athletes.

In all of her work, both photographs and video, she seeks to eliminate context either through using an out of focus landscape or a plain background. She does this to force the viewer to concentrate on the subject. The large format images also present lots of detail.

Dijkstra has often photographed  people just after highly emotional experiences….new mothers, bull fighters after the kill, a self portrait after exercise and such like. She does to try to capture some of the emotion of the experience they have just had but also with a view to catching her subjects at moments when they are less self conscious.

The videos are made in similar format to the still photographs with the subjects shown against a plain background and in most cases with a single subject centred in the frame. She says she provides little direction preferring to to leave things open to see what develops. The Buzz club/Mystery World video was shown on four walls simultaneously each with the different subject, so one feels submerged in the differing responses of her subjects to the music of the disco.

The more recent Ruth Drawing Picasso and I see a Woman Crying(Weeping Woman) (2009) video work shows children responding to an abstract work The Weeping Woman by Picasso. These were shown on three screens simultaneously each showing a different group of children. The effect was like a very wide panorama shot.

Thoughout one gets the impression that Dijkstra deploys a very empathetic treatment of the sitters. The work is consistently deadpan and straightforward such that one is lead to feel that the photographer has applied a light touch and that you are seeing is what you might have seen had you been there. There is an excellent video including comments from the curator and Dijkstra herself on the Guggenheim site here.

So what did I think….well those reading this blog will realise that Rineke Dijkstra is a photographer whose work I greatly admire. For me it seems to present people as they are not as images fashioned by the photographer. Her portraits appear open and the way in which she works in series allows one to compare and contrast across subjects and indeed in some cases the same subject over time. The exhibition did not disappoint is this regard. The huge photographs simply added to the experience and I found myself wanting to spend time with them and indeed to keep going back to particular portraits when I have noticed something in another. Seeing all her work in one place like this however made me very conscious of another aspect of her work. Adopting the same stylistic approach throughout runs the risk of being boring and losing the viewers attention because of this. Indeed I found this particularly noticeable with the videos. This might just be a personal preference for still photography coming through here.

Looking at her different series I still feel most drawn to her Beach Portraits. I find these fascinating as a documentary commentary on social and cultural influences on children growing up in different parts of the world. These are very evident in the clothing, postures and expressions of the subjects.

Some of her other series seem to lack a documentary hook. The Parks series I for example I find much less interesting. It may be because all of her subjects in this series were from Western Europe (mostly Germany and the Netherlands). In some of these portraits the subjects gazes are averted, looking out away form the viewer. To a great extent this reduced my engagement with the subjects.

Perhaps to illustrate my point about avoiding the trap of becoming boring, I found the video I see a Woman Crying(Weeping Woman) (2009) fascinating. The kids were pictured talking about a Picasso painting Weeping Woman.There was much speculation about the motives for the woman’s state on show. Alongside this one could see the interplay between the different personalities. The panoramic view offered by the three screens allowed one to see what was going on on the fringes of the scene which showed about 10 kids. The crops of the videos were quite different from Dijkstra’s usual centrality. It made for a refreshing and very interesting work. On an amusing note the video had subtitles to translate the ‘scouse’ language of the children.

This is the link to the Guggenheim website.

What did I learn…well a number of things:

  • The visit reaffirmed my strong personal preference for portraits made in a deadpan low key style. I find this approach makes for a more credible and natural approach to portraiture which is very differentiated from the glut of souped up imagery we see every day.
  • Large prints do engage a more considered response from the viewer – this is based on a sample of one i.e. me but  when I spoke to my wife who came to the exhibition with me she felt the same.
  • Having some kind of documentary hook for the series does strengthen it and encourage the viewer to explore the portraits more as a series.
  • Be aware that deadpan can be boring and look for ways to ring the changes.
  • In a similar vein to the last comment, look for different ways to present one’s work. Video is certainly a refreshing variation to large prints.
  • Beach Portraits is perhaps Dijkstra’s best known and most acclaimed work. It is interesting to note that this work was done over 10 years and yet there were only 13 portraits included in this retrospective. It just goes to show that good work is very illusive and that I should be patient and when I have a good idea doggedly persistent!!