I was invited to write an article for One Twelve Publishing (weblink below) for their Poignant Pics series where they ask photo curators, educators, collectors and makers to share a brief essay on a photo that has significantly changed the way they think or look at the world. In this article, I reflect on an encounter with this larger than life portrait by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra.
In 2012, my wife Carrie and I traveled to San Francisco. We visited the Museum of Modern Art and, after viewing the permanent collection, went to the top floor where there was a retrospective exhibit of Rineke Dijkstra’s photography. I was unfamiliar with the Dutch photographer but immediately taken by her larger than life portraits of adolescents on beaches. It affected me with a deep, undeniable fixation that I had felt once, nearly twenty years earlier, seeing a Da Vinci painting. At the beginning of the exhibit were perhaps eight such beach portraits, all of which I found compelling in their direct, frank connection to the subjects.
These were clearly deliberate portraits, each composed in the same manner, with the person or group centered, the horizon at the lower third. Artificial lighting subtly highlights the subject and darkens the soft, gray-blue background of ocean and sky. Although deliberate, they lacked affectation or contrivance. And while completely unlike Cartier-Bresson, her photographs hold a decisive moment in the form of an uncomfortable silence.
One, in particular, stood out to me. A girl (from Poland as it turns out) in a green swimsuit stands unsurely, her limbs too long; a postmodern Botticelli. She stares obliquely into the camera. Through her gaze, her composure, her stance, the ungainly fit of her suit and her own body, Dijkstra quietly conveys the awkwardness of this age.
I knew next to nothing about large format photography at the time. The prints were marvelous in their monumental scale and left me wondering how they could retain their clarity in enlargement.
I have never been a fan of banal subjects in photography and, at first glance, one might paint Dijkstra’s portraiture with that same brushstroke. After all, these are people of largely indistinguishable nationality, more alike than not in their ordinariness, purposefully happened upon by the photographer. But the power lies in her sensitivity toward their humanity and our common human experience, expressed by capturing the decisive, unguarded moment.
So, why does Dijkstra remain poignant? I don’t photograph like Dijkstra. I work almost exclusively with silver gelatin. I tend to work in documentary settings around historic architecture and infrastructure, particularly in large format film. I enjoy photographing people but tend to stick with medium format, shooting candidly and with available light. So, what’s the moral? I suppose this chance encounter with Dijkstra enlightened me to an available might in the candid portrayal of ordinary subjects; that anyone (or any place or anything) could channel shared truth and, therefore, be a conduit to the viewer. The continuous challenge is to behold that truth, catch it, and make its beauty accessible.