Rineke Dijkstra on Her Guggenheim Retrospective, Vulnerability, and Photographing British Club Kids

Rineke Dijkstra on Her Guggenheim Retrospective, Vulnerability, and Photographing British Club Kids
Rineke Dijkstra's "Self-Portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 1991," 1991, chromogenic print
(Courtesy the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery, New York & Paris; © Rineke Dijkstra)

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim may be installed in the museum’s annex galleries rather than the main spiral ramp, but the exhibition remains hypnotizing. Dijkstra’s large-scale vertical portraits stand like sentinels around the four floors of galleries, silently daring viewers to look closer. Even for visitors familiar with the photographer’s famous “Bathers” series of adolescents posed on beaches, the show includes a number of surprises. Dijkstra’s recent video works of Liverpool club dancers show a less dour yet similarly sensitive side to the artist.

Dijkstra herself, in attendance at the Guggenheim press preview, seems to have more in common with the dance club ravers than her stiff Israeli soldier and French legionnaire subjects. ARTINFO sat down with the artist for a short conversation about the accident that made her an art photographer, being vulnerable in front of the camera, and her history as a clubber.

On display at the Guggenheim is a self-portrait that you took at a pool. Can you explain the story behind that photo and how you moved from editorial to art photography?

I was working for magazines and newspapers, and at a certain point I felt that I was an artist... I felt more like an art photographer. I thought maybe I should take a couple months off to think about a project for myself. The last day of the two months that I gave myself to think about everything, I broke my hip in a bike accident. So then I had a lot of time to think [laughs].

And I think that that moment I realized how vulnerable you could be, that something can just happen. My whole perspective changed. I had to recover, and I was really afraid... The doctor said, “well, maybe your hip is going to die, and you’ll need a hip replacement.” I didn’t want that to happen. And they told me the only thing I can do is swim every day. Exercise, exercise, exercise! So that’s why I started to swim every day. And then one day I came out of the swimming pool and looked in the mirror and I took my goggles off, and it looked like I was crying. I thought, maybe I should make a self-portrait. I wanted to capture a moment you don’t normally think about.

Was there anything that frustrated you about editorial photography?

The thing that I found so difficult about editorial work was that everyone was always so self-conscious. Everybody starts to pose, gets on their photo face. I didn’t know how to deal with that. I wanted to get people to drop that mask.

Is that how your “Bathers” series of portraits of teenagers on beaches started?

I grew up in a place near the beach, and I started to photograph people on the beach. I first started to photograph friends, but I had the same problem, everyone was so self-conscious. So I started to photograph strangers. The first beach portrait was a black-and-white photograph of a girl who was about 13, and I realized that I like that age group very much. She was very open, and there was a lack of inhibition, very natural. I felt like that age group was... There was an acceptance. So I started to photograph children and teenagers.

Is that desire to photograph teenagers also what kicked you off on your clubber portraits and videos, like the Buzz Club installation?

First of all, there was the club itself. I was a clubber myself when I was much younger. So I went to clubs when I was 14, and I always liked that. I was in Liverpool and I was photographing school children and my assistant was also a clubber, so after shooting we went to the club. We ended up in the Buzz Club, which we really liked, and I thought, wow, I should make pictures here.

How did you move from still photography into the video format?

I liked the club pictures, but they were missing something — the atmosphere of the club and the people moving and dancing and talking. So that brought me to video. I wanted to capture the atmosphere of the club, and that was missing in the photos.

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” runs at the Guggenheim through October 8.