Currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the mid-career retrospective of work by the photographer Rineke Dijkstra lays out the argument she has built for more than twenty years for the intimacy and dignity of portraiture as a genre. Beginning with the portraits that first brought Dijkstra’s work to international awareness, of bathing suit–clad teenagers at the beach, and culminating with a series of images of children and teenagers posing in a park, viewers encounter subjects who are alternately self-conscious, exhilarated, stoic, or wary but always cognizant of projecting an identity for the camera.
Looking at these photographs, one notices the extent to which the close cropping of an image, a non-descript background, or the figure’s selected pose or attire inform our impressions of who these individuals are and how much of themselves they hold in reserve. While their faces are expressive, their smiles are rare; they are not trying to project idealistic personas. What comes to the foreground instead are the representations of specific moments and particular affiliations in their lives that resonate universally. Whether Dijkstra’s subjects are teenage ravers, school children, refugees, soldiers, new mothers, or bullfighters, the specific details of their individual narratives are stripped away and replaced by a viewer’s empathy and recognition for what they are experiencing.
On February 17, I had the opportunity to walk through the exhibition with the artist and discuss how these ideas of individuality and universality resonated with one photograph or another, often with the work between us a silent participant in the conversation. The photographs’ subjects are where we have been or will be: standing at the cusp between one life phase and another or fully immersed in the attributes and behaviors of a larger group, institution, or subculture. And whether grounded or in flux, the question “Who am I?” persists from one photograph to the next.
The one variation of this question emanates from the three-channel video installation, I See A Woman Crying (2009), commissioned by Tate Liverpool, in which a group of schoolchildren speculate about the 1937 Picasso painting, Weeping Woman. The portrait never appears in the video; the camera remains focused on the children as they puzzle over who the woman is and why she is crying. As viewers of this video, we sit impassively as they spin narratives of murdered ghosts and shunned wedding guests, but all the while, they are gazing outward at us. Dijsktra has turned the tables on her audience; we are positioned as the subject of the students’ observations. They express fears of death, loneliness, betrayal, and unhappiness that are intrinsic reflections of our own.
Patricia Maloney: There’s the photograph of a schoolboy and also those photos of the Israeli soldiers, in uniform and out, in which it seems you’re trying to find the essence of who they are, within their institutional identities as schoolchildren or as soliders. How do they negotiate for their own selves within this collective identity?
Rineke Dijkstra: Within a group or a specific situation—for instance, in Israel everybody has to commit to a collective identity [with conscription]—there is always the individual who is also longing for something else. You always try to keep your own personality. You can never afford to lose that; that’s how people distinguish themselves from each other.
PM: Is that the same or similar to what’s happening with the portraits of the club-goers? Because they’re not part of an institution, but they’re part of a subculture.
RD: Exactly. It’s the same. There’s also a dress code or a code of how to behave. There is always this group or these codes that dictates how you have to be, and it’s interesting to see how people always remain themselves.
PM: The image of the schoolboy is tightly cropped, which makes me think about that age—when all of your bodily proportions are off, and you're not conscious of it. I remember when my daughter went through that. Her arms and legs grew really long, but her torso remained small, so she would bang into walls or reach for something and knock everything off the table.
RD: You don’t have any control anymore about your own body. It’s a little bit like Alice in Wonderland.
PM: Exactly, yes! Like drinking the potion and sprouting up in particular ways—Is that why you cropped this image so closely and tightly, because it’s very contained?
RD: It’s very claustrophic, isn’t it? I would never have chosen it if it only looked like he was suffering, but he just goes though it, like a snake that is losing its skin. You see them first as children, they grow up, and the [transitions] are really ugly. The mouth is too big, the ears—everything is growing out of proportion. Then they become really beautiful. And it’s as if he somehow knows—I mean, that’s what this picture tells me—that this is temporary; this is what we all have to go through. He accepts it somehow. I’m interested in how he deals with it. He might not like his picture, but for me it’s something universal.
PM: Do your subjects see their images?
RD: Most of the time, yes. I didn’t stay in touch with the bullfighters. At that time, when I made [these photographs], there was no email. There are different groups; they fight in a village one week, and then the next week, they go somewhere else. So it’s very difficult to track them down. But I’m still in touch with the women who just gave birth.
PM: I was surprised to find out that those photographs were actually taken in their homes, because the locations look so clinical.
RD: It was not a personal experience but something more universal that I tried to capture. If you have a painting on the wall or a couch, a viewer would look at it and would immediately think, “Okay, this person has this kind of taste. She likes this kind of drawing and she likes this kind of interior.” They may not be able to identify with the experience because they first have to negotiate those details. I thought it was easier to leave everything out of the picture [and make it] abstract. It’s somehow easier to recognize yourself in something that is abstract than in something which is maybe too specific.
PM: The portraits of Almerisa offer a very specific chronology— it’s her chronology—but I think that the same opportunity exists, to project a universal narrative onto these images. Because they show what everyone goes through, in terms of growing up.
RD: She came from another culture; she came from Bosnia. So you also see how she is slowly adopting a Western European culture.
PM: These were taken in her home?
RD: Yes. This was really a small home, and the piece of a carpet or the chair gives an indication of the space; you don’t have to show everything.
PM: I find it very easy with this series to imagine what her experience is at each stage, and where she is—especially, to realize these two are taken at the same place because of the carpet. The one that I am especially drawn to is from 2007.
RD: She becomes a woman.
PM: She does. But there’s also a radical alteration to her appearance that suggests something dramatic has happened to her. I think it’s because of the color of her hair and also because her eye makeup is really harsh. She’s hard in this image.
RD: Yeah, she is.
PM: With this series, do you photograph her regularly or just once a year? How do you decide that these are the images that represent her? It is interesting to see where the continuities are and where the gaps are.
RD: I’ve used every picture that I’ve taken. This one was from 2000, this was from 2005, this from 2007, and then she became pregnant. So many things were happening; I really wanted to have a photograph of her pregnant and, of course, one with the baby because that was a big thing in her life. I feel now that I’m going to continue, although, in a way, the circle is round now. She is now a mother herself and her kid is just a little bit younger than [she is in] her first picture.
PM: Have the club kids seen their images, and do they recognize themselves in your photos, or do they ever challenge you on how you’ve represented them? I imagine they might, especially at this age.
RD: Nicky was nineteen here and, actually, I took her photo first and then later [shot] the video. She wanted to do the film because she liked her picture so much. It’s quite amazing, isn’t it? Because most people hate their own [portraits]. But she liked it, and I’m really fond of this picture, too, because somehow everything is symmetrical—the dress, the hair, and even the eyes are symmetrical. But then the mouth is crooked. It’s just a coincidence, but it’s so beautiful, isn’t it? Also, this is an inkjet [print], so the color saturation is better and it’s more real, somehow, if I compare it now to older ones.
PM: By contrast, Olivier, the French Legionnaire, is unflappable. His expression is always the same.
RD: Yes, that’s what I thought, also! I always thought when I saw him again that he didn’t change at all, but I could see from the pictures that he had changed. One image is from early in the morning, right after an exercise, where they [are thrown] in the woods in the middle of the night, and they have to find their way out. Another was right after he stood guard for five or six hours, when they cannot move. A third was, again, after an exercise.
PM: And at this same time, out of all of your subjects, he seems the most resistant to being represented as himself. He is the one saying, “I'm going to occupy this institutional identity, and you’re going to have to take that.” Whereas Nikki seems to say, “Here I am. I’m willing to become an image.”
RD: As an image, Nicky’s is much more exciting. But I saw with Olivier that the time lapse reveals exactly who he is, somehow. In the French Foreign Legion, they have all these different uniforms. If you look at him in his first uniform, you see he’s really a young boy who doesn’t really fit into his uniform yet, while here, after he has received a medal, his personality has grown into it.
PM: Looking at the details that you place emphasis on, such as the pores and the sweat of his brow, I think about how photography and printing methods have changed and wonder how they have impacted your work.
RD: Yes, it’s very different from someone like Diane Arbus, who only had black-and-white film, and small prints, which makes a lot of difference. Color has more possibilities for me. I can only do the landscapes with color photography. I’m always considering what light can do as landscape and for the atmosphere of a landscape.
PM: It’s amazing how much 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?
PM: 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.
PM: This is where painting comes to mind, especially Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe.
RD: Yes, she’s sitting the same way. It’s a total coincidence.
PM: So you didn’t construct this composition?
RD: No. And when I took this picture, I was quite relaxed because it was the first day that I decided to take some pictures. 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.
PM: 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, for [Vondelpark, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 2005], 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.
PM: 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.
Rineke Dijkstra was born in Sittard, the Netherlands, in 1959. She studied photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam from 1981 to 1986. Her first solo exhibition took place in 1984 at de Moor in Amsterdam. Dijsktra's photographs have appeared in numerous international exhibitions, including the 1997 and 2001 Venice Biennale, the 1998 Bienal de Sao Paulo, Turin's Biennale Internationale di Fotografia in 1999, and the 2003 International Center for Photography's Triennial of Photography and Video in New York. She is the recipient of a number of awards, including the Kodak Award Nederland (1987), the Art Encouragement Award Amstelveen (1993), the Werner Mantz Award (1994), and the Citibank Private Bank Photography Prize (1998). She lives and works in Amsterdam.