10 Mar - 22 July 2018
work in collection
Since the Beach Portraits that brought Rineke Dijkstra (Sittard, 1959) international fame during the 1990s, the general number of photographic images surrounding us has grown explosively. Not only via mass media, but digitally as well, we’re bombarded with photographs, selfies and videos of friends and others every day. How does the work of Rineke Dijkstra distinguish itself from this endless flow of photographic portraits? What makes her photographs and videos so unusual?
The prelude to her Beach Portraits was a self-portrait, a kind of selfie in which she appears in a bathing suit. In 1991 Dijkstra needed to recover from a serious cycling accident. As means of experimenting, she photographed herself after having swum thirty laps, visibly too tired to pose. The photograph is taken with a 4x5-inch technical camera on a tripod, which rules out quick exposures. This time-consuming process has determined her way of working from that point on: first the aperture must be set, then the cassette goes in, and only after that is the photograph taken. The negatives are as large as a postcard and crystal-clear. Dijkstra uses a standard lens, without a zoom option, which makes it necessary to photograph even close-ups from a close proximity. ‘A number of ingredients are needed in order to produce a good portrait. It all revolves around the gaze, the posture, but also the background, the light and the story that you want to tell. Sometimes all of those elements come together beautifully, like a puzzle. Then they heighten each other,’ Dijkstra explains in an interview in NRC Handelsblad on being granted the Hasselblad Award, a prestigious photography prize, in October 2017.
Dijkstra prefers to work in series, which allow the differences and similarities among the portrait subjects and their cultural backgrounds to emerge in a subtle manner. In the beach photographs, American youths seem to have more self-confidence than their Eastern European contemporaries – their bathing gear heightens this impression. But in the sensitive transitional phase between childhood and adulthood, all of them do exude the same lack of certainty.
In the series Young Mothers and Bullfighters, too, conflicting emotions struggle for predominance. Full-length portraits of the mothers, in the nude, were taken shortly after they had given birth; all three are protectively cradling their newborn babies against their bodies. The photographs make the exhaustion, excitement and pride visible in a raw and unfiltered way. Similar emotions can be seen in the portraits of Portuguese bullfighters who still have blood on their faces and shirts. Contrary to the Spanish tradition, the bull is not killed, but the men force the animal to its knees in a joint show of strength. One of them is the first to throw himself onto the bull, literally looking straight into the eyes of death. It was these men whom Dijkstra asked to pose for her.
In all of these portraits, be they full-length or close-up views, the background is plain: beach, sea and sky, a bare interior or a neutral color. The background does not compete with the isolated figure. But standing out in this are certain details, such as the trickle of blood along the leg of a mother, or the footprints around the American girl wearing make-up and an orange bikini; for the latter it clearly took some effort to find the right pose.
Dijkstra creates the conditions and plays with the light, which appears to be natural and yet has a slightly different appearance. She chooses her figures carefully. As a photographer, you need to connect with the person, she says. And in turn, the portrait subject needs to open up to you: ‘A photograph like this is produced together. That’s what the viewer sees: an encounter between the photographer and her subject.’ And chance plays a significant role in this: ‘In a good portrait, there is always an element of chance, something you could not have anticipated. I like that impromptu quality. The pose shouldn’t look too contrived.’
The sharply focused photographs give the viewer a sense of being face to face with the portrait subjects. At the same time, the serial character of the work also makes the subjects lose a certain degree of individuality. As a viewer, one mainly identifies with the universal human feelings (e.g. shyness, a lack of ease) displayed by them.
While studying at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, Dijkstra photographed nightlife in Paradiso and on graduating was commissioned to produce portraits for the business magazine Quote. Men in suits were meant to come across as being self-confident, not wanting any loss of face. But who, Dijkstra wondered, was actually behind that mask? What makes that person different from all others? This question became a mainspring for her uncommissioned work, but also with the assignments that she accepted. Take, for instance, the portrait of the Australian film actress Cate Blanchett. She’s wearing a lace dress and has a fairly fragile appearance. But is this real, or is she playing a role? Such questions interest Dijkstra. Despite the faithfully rendered appearance of the photograph, the portrait subject ultimately remains unfathomable and elusive.
Among children that question seems to play a lesser role, one might say, since they are still uninhibited. Look at the moving video of Ruth, an English schoolgirl who sits on the floor intently drawing a copy of a painting by Picasso. But with children, too, that question remains evident: who is hiding behind a mask, and who is showing his or her true face? This dilemma is subtly conveyed in the video of Marianna, a ten-year-old Russian ballerina who practices her dance steps in a pink studio. The cloyingly sweet surroundings and the spirited music stand in stark contrast to the stern voice of a teacher who is giving instructions off screen. With each new attempt to execute the steps perfectly, Marianna smiles as she has been conditioned to do, but gradually a certain fatigue and defiance nonetheless begin to emerge.
This exhibition is organized in collaboration with the Louisiana Museum in Denmark, where it was on show until 30 December 2017.