Rineke Dijkstra

Posted on January 31, 2013


I have made several previous posts about Rineke Dijkstra – a photographer who has greatly influenced my approach to portraiture. These posts are listed here.

Dijkstra is a contemporary Dutch portrait photographer who works with the format of the photographic series. This approach creates opportunities for  typological observation, adding to the fascination of her portraits.

Her style is fairly deadpan and she cites Sander  as an influence. As I indicated in the previous post on Sander, I find this less expressive style more compelling as in my view it lends an authenticity to the portraits. Unlike Sander however Dijkstra’s portraits do not reinforce the subjects’ places within a distinct social order. On the contrary her portraits seem to convey the instability of identity.

The common thread running through Dijkstra’s work is the idea of ‘life in transition’. Her subjects have included subjects such as adolescents on the threshold of adulthood, mothers immediately after giving birth and young people who have joined the armed services. She has sometimes worked with the same subjects over several years introducing the time dimension explicitly. Her portraits of adolescents from the Buzzclub and Beach Portraits series show young people searching for a self. They seem to be ‘trying on’ identities that they wish to adopt but come over as somewhat uncertain and unconvincing.

Dijkstra says she tries to capture her subjects at a moment of introversion. She sometimes uses the technique of making the portraits at moments when her subjects are distracted or ‘too tired to pose’. For example, in her Beach Portraits the children had just been playing in the sea and her portraits of bull fighters were made immediately after they came out of the ring. She got this idea from a self portrait she made when she had just been swimming (this was during a period of convalescence after breaking her leg). I used a similar approach in my I am an Ironman self portraits.

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 her recent exhibition at the Guggenheim in New York, she explains 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 an approach which I have been trying to emulate in my Ironman Family work.

Dijkstra presents her work as near life size prints and video. This creates a different kind of engagement between the viewer and the photograph which is more akin to that which we might have with another person rather than with a photograph. It also provides a wealth of detail for the viewer to explore.

I summarised my key learning points from my visit to her exhibition at the Guggenheim. I thought it would be worth repeating them here..they still hold true.

  • 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!!
Intallation view - Rineke Dijkstra- A Retrospective Guggenheim New York 2012

Intallation view – Rineke Dijkstra- A Retrospective Guggenheim New York 2012