Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Rineke Dijkstra, a conversation

The following interview with Rineke Dijkstra is from Image Makers, Image Takers: Interviews with Today's Leading Curators, Editors and Photographers (Thames & Hudson, 2007) written by British-based journalist and critic Anne-Celine Jaeger.

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra tends to work in series, concentrating on individual portraits. She focuses on people in a transitional stage of their lives, such as women after giving birth in 'Mothers', adolescents and pre-adolescents in her 'Beach' series and new recruits in 'Israeli Soldiers'.

When did you get into photography?
I was studying to be an arts and crafts teacher, but didn't feel comfortable doing that. Then a friend lent me his camera once and I just thought, 'this is it.' I was 19. I did a photography course to learn the practical side of things and then went to Gerrit Rietveld Akademie, an art school in Amsterdam. I've always liked observing. Even as a kid I was obsessed with watching people that looked special to me.

Do you think it's important to be technically proficient?
It depends what kind of photography you do. It's important to know the possibilities in terms of what you can do. For example, how I use the flash and light is very important in my images. For me it was a case of learning by doing because I never understood anything they taught me at school. about authenticity. I try to find people that have something special. I don't even know what it is. It's intuition. The pictures of the kids in the Tiergarten in Berlin, for example, came about because those children were actually playing a game and I was simply to get to know them just by observing them when I am taking the picture. I try and look for an uninhibited moment, where people forget about trying to control the image of themselves. People go into sort of trance because so much concentration is needed from both photographer and the subject when you are working with a 4x5. Even the tiniest movement means you have to refocus. I also need to be able to relate to my subject. For example, when I took the portraits of the girls in the Buzzclub in Liverpool, England I could relate tothem. I tried doing the same in other clubs, but it just didn't work.

What interests you about the transition of a person?
I think photography really lets you examine how a person is changing. When I was photographing Olivier, the Frenchman who enlisted in the Foreign Legion, every time I went to see him I thought he hadn't changed at all. But in the picture you can see the change in his eyes, in his expression. They were subtle, but you could see them clearly.

What do you look for in your subjects?
It's important for me to know the location is right before I approach a subject. Then, I'll find the subject within that location and work from what the subject does. When subjects are posing for me, I don't ever want to manipulate them too much.

What is your aim when taking pictures?
I want to show things you might not see in normal life. I make normal things appear special. I want people to look at life in a new and different way, but it always has to be based on reality. It's important that you don't pass judgement, and leave space for interpretation. For example, in the Almerisa series, the young Bosnian refugee, whose portrait I took for the first time in the early 1990s, it was important for me not to show any specific details of her surroundings such as the décor of the apartment. If you show too much of a subject's personal life, the viewer will immediately make assumptions. If you leave out the details, the viewer has to look for much subtler hints such as how her shoelaces are tied, or her lipstick or the state of her The same goes for the picture of the boy in Odessa.You could show he is poor by including a trashcan or a stray cat in the picture. But for me it's all about subtlety and the fact that you really have to read the image to get clues about the boy.That makes it equal for everybody.
I like it when photographs are democratic. I usually find that portraits work best if you don't have a specific idea of what you are looking for. You have to be open for anything to happen. If you try and force something, there is always the danger of a picture becoming too one-dimensional.

How did you come up with the idea for the 'Beach' series?
I broke my hip about 15 years ago and started doing self-portraits after swimming in the pool where I was doing physiotherapy. I was fascinated by capturing something unconscious and natural in a photograph, something that was miles away from the boring and predictable businessmen I had until then mostly photographed. I was interested in photographing people at moments when they had dropped all pretence of a pose. Once I began taking these pictures, I realized I would prefer to do a series because it gave me a better grip on a subject.

What equipment do you use?
I use a 4x5 inch field camera with a standard lens and a tripod. The negatives are the size of postcards, which gives you really wonderful sharp detail and contrast. The end result is that your photograph is almost more real than reality.

How do you set up your lights?
In the beginning I always had really complicated lighting set-ups because I thought: the more lights, the better the picture. Now I work with as few lights as possible. For me, daylight is the main source of light, and the flash is really only there to lighten the shadows. I use one Lumedyne flash. It works with batteries so you can use it inside and outside.

How many frames do you shoot per subject?
I take about four or five sheets of film per subject, but I might shoot about five different people in a park on any given day. I've realized that I can't just go to a park and wait for the right person to turn up. I have to start working. Then I get into it and become part of the environment. It's a development. For example, a picture I took of a little girl in Barcelona only came about at the end of my working day. I was actually finished and packing up but then I saw her. She was there with her dad riding that scooter, looking at me like 'What are you doing?' and it's exactly the same look as in the photo. That's what I'm looking for. It's got to be emphatic. If you see the picture, it shouldn't look forced, it should look like a snapshot. You're not supposed to think it's all set up. You should take it for granted and it should be totally natural somehow. I took three frames of her. That's how long her concentration lasted. But I got my picture.

How do you edit your pictures?
I scan the negatives and make them bigger so you can see more. Then I might leave them for two weeks because you need distance to see properly. It happens to me that I take a picture and I think it doesn't work at all and then I look at it three years later and I think it's a great picture. It's probably linked to having something in mind and being disappointed that your expectations weren't met, but then realizing later that it was in fact a lucky moment. But in general I make sure the light, the facial expression and the posture of the body look right.

Where do you get your inspiration?
I like the work of contemporary portrait photographers like Thomas Struth, Paul Graham and Judith Joy Ross as well as some of the older generation, in particular Diane Arbus and August Sander a lot, but generally I get more out of looking at old paintings such as the Rembrandts, Vermeers and Versproncks at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. I think the light, as well as the emotional and psychological forces at play are so incredible in those paintings. I prefer the old classics to contemporary art shows.

What art form does photography come closest to?
Perhaps sculpture. I think it's important that people understand and look at photography in a more abstract way. It's about being able to imagine looking behind the image as if it was three-dimensional.

Why do you print your images large format?
I like it when a picture is monumental – especially in a museum setting. But for me it's also important that if you stand in front of my picture, you feel the urge to come closer. If photos are too large, people tend to look at them only froma distance. I like them to be printed big enough so people view them froma distance but small enough so that they step forward and look for all the details in the picture. I think there is a whole story in all those details. It's about intimacy too.

Do you ever do editorial work?
When I first left art school I did portraits for magazines and newspapers but found it difficult because I wanted to create something more substantial that related to everybody, not just to one specific person. I learnt a lot about how to be technical, how to work with people and how to work fast, but now I'm more interested in my personal projects. Occasionally I do assignments for The New York Times Magazine.

Do you think people can learn a certain way of seeing?
I think everybody can do it. Diane Arbus said that you just have to choose a subject and continue photographing it for as long as something comes out of it. You always have to use your own fascinations as a starting point. It's the same if you are in a group of people: you will always look at the people who are the most interesting to you. The same goes for photography, you have to photograph what you like. Passion is really important.

What excites you most about photography?
I love being totally in the moment, when everything comes together and is just right. You actually see things clearer. But I can spend weeks in the park without ever seeing anything interesting and I never know whether it is because it simply isn't there or because I just didn't see it.

What makes one image stand out more than another?
A photograph works best when the formal aspects such as light, colour and composition, as well as the informal aspects like someone's gaze or gesture come together. In my pictures I also look for a sense of stillness and serenity. I like it when everything is reduced to its essence. You try to get things to reach a climax. A moment of truth.

Rineke arrives in Auckland next week for her AUT workshop with Paul Graham.

The photograph above is Poland, July 27 1992

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