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.