People watching people watching people
Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra is something of a master in capturing an intimate portrait. With her eponymous exhibition at Marian Goodman Gallery ending before it even began back in March, we catch up on the online version, instead.
Rineke Dijkstra has been shooting intimate portraits for years. Her style is soft, intimate, and emphasises the relationship between photographer and sitter. Some portraits are vulnerable, others robust – depending on her many subjects.
Ever since the youth of Ukraine starred in her recognisable, ongoing Beach Portraits series in 1992, Dutch-born Dijkstra has snapped clubbers, Spanish bullfighters, soldiers, Liverpudlian school kids, siblings living everywhere from London, England to Xiamen, China, and sets of twins she has followed over the years.
In early March, Dijkstra was preparing for her self-titled exhibition, which was set to open on 12th March in Soho’s Marian Goodman Gallery. It would have been her first UK exhibition in 10 years until she was informed by the Gallery’s director – the night before the opening – that the exhibition was cancelled. A result of Covid-19.
“It was a strange, weird experience to have that happening the day before,” 60-year-old Dijkstra says over the phone from her Amsterdam home. “But then you realise what is happening around the world and [suddenly] my exhibition didn’t feel as important to me at that point.”
A few weeks later, the exhibition made its way onto the Marian Goodman website. Would-be visitors could experience the show virtually through a video walkthrough.
With talks of the self-titled exhibition starting last November, Rineke Dijkstra was to premiere a new film, Night Watcher (2019). The film is a three-screen video installation featuring 14 groups of people observing and speaking about Rembrandt’s celebrated 1642 painting, The Night Watch, where it hangs in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. It’s a colossal oil-on-canvas, and the beard-strokey arty types love it.
A 35-minute film, Night Watcher essentially depicts people looking at a painting of people, while we watch the people looking at a painting of people. Blimey.
Featured in the film are Dutch locals Dijkstra hand-picked herself, including supermarket workers an Amsterdam grocery store, school children, young metal workers, experts who work at bookings.com, art school students and Japanese businessmen.
“I asked the groups to prepare to read something about The Night Watch,” she says. “All of those people came with different ideas and the most unexpected things they said were the best.”
The result is a master session in dynamics between different groups, watching them talk from their own perspectives, authentically. The Japanese businessmen talk about the financial prospect of the painting, while the art school students dissect the impact it has had on contemporary art. Others simply marvel at the sheer volume of the canvas.
“I always try to create a situation where unexpected things can happen,” Dijkstra explains. “For me, it was seeing if it was possible to make a group portrait of people watching a group portrait.”
Sat alongside the film would have been a series of sisters captured over time, Emma, Lucy and Cecile (Three Sisters 2008 – 2014), (2016) shot over a period of seven years. The result is 21 inkjet prints of the sisters ageing as the years go by in Dijkstra’s hyper-minimal style. The eldest turns into an adult, the middle a sort-of-adult, and the youngest becomes a moody teenager.
“I have always been interested in passing time and how you can capture that in a photograph,” she says. “You don’t realise it so much day-by-day, but everything is constantly moving and changing – you can beautifully capture the passing of time in a photograph.”
Ever since the photographer has been in lockdown, she’s been sifting through her massive archive which was, in her words, “quite a mess.”
But looking towards the future, what does she hope photographers will learn from our current situation?
“Photography has been captivated by speed,” she mentions. “I hope there will be more attention to the individual power of a picture again, and I hope that we will slow down a little bit.”