This Week In Photography Books – Rineke Dijkstra

by Jonathan Blaustein

Who can remember the days of December? Not me. 2012 has been a blur, and I dispute the fact that it’s 1/4 over. (Can’t possibly be true.) It’s all been covered with film, for me, like the skin on a bowl of old chocolate pudding.

Why? That’s easy. As soon as you read this sentence, I’ll be the first lunatic to ever announce his wife’s pregnancy in a book review. It’s a girl, in case you were wondering. Due late Summer, we found out on Christmas Day. How’s that for symbolism?

So now, if you like, you can go back and read all the 2012 columns, looking for hints of latent madness. (The kind that comes from having a vomitorious wife, on top of an energetic 4 year old.) Me, me, me. It’s always about me in these reviews. How about her? Well, Jessie is my best friend, and it was horrible to watch her suffer for our daughter. But now she’s got the glow, and I have a few more months before I succumb to sleep-deprived misery. (Of the temporary variety, thankfully.)

Where were we? Right. December. Not so long ago, I wrote a column about a suite of images I saw at MOPA: the best photos I saw in 2011 that I hadn’t already written about yet. By Rineke Dijkstra. (Not to be confused with Lenny Dijkstra, who’s rotting in prison at the moment.) The column created quite a stir, though I still don’t know why. Apparently, Ms. Dijkstra’s dry style rubs some photographers the wrong way, as her subtle use of color and emotion lacks potency for those accustomed to dead children in redundant photographic pablum.

Now it’s April, and wouldn’t you know it, but Ms. Dijkstra has a nice new monograph out, published by SFMOMA and the Guggenheim Museum. A beautiful byproduct of her career retrospective, bouncing between the two venues. Does the imprimatur of two such esteemed institutions mean that you must now like her work and buy her book? Of course not. But if you know anything about me by now, (beyond my preference for cotton boxers, my father’s health, and the sex of my unborn child,) you know that I had to review this book. Even though we already talked about the artist back when the sun descended before 5pm, and everyone was cold and dour.

Come Spring, we focus on cleaning, renewal. New year, new possibilities. New births. My daughter will be a water dragon, according to the Chinese calendar. My son was a golden pig, which is meant to be auspicious, and that’s worked out pretty well. But a water dragon? I suppose I’ll have to hold on tight.

And for those of you who love Ms. Dijkstra’s work, or have yet to unpack its austere mystery, that’s what it’s all about. Possibility. Change. Growth. Adaptation. And the ineffable. (Which, if it was meant to be obvious, would go by another name.) That’s what becomes clear, at least, when you go through this book page by page.

Children by the sea, each standing in the same position. Minimize the variables, and the differences are all we have left to ponder. A young girl on the street in Odessa in 1993. Where is she going with that sunhat and leather valise. A boy, the next day, in the same place, holding two dolls. What gives? We’ll never know.

Women, naked, holding their newborns, right after birth. The scars reveal who had a Caesarian. Then, Tia, in Amsterdam, three weeks after giving birth, and then 5 months later. Look at the hint of change. Better hair, no circles under her eyes, she looks human in the second image, and slightly sad in the first. (Yes, I know that train is coming, and it has my name on it.)

On to the bullfighters, sure, then Almerisa, a young girl seeking Asylum in the Netherlands in 1994. (The project to which I alluded in the December article, as I saw several images at the Met in 2010.) Ms. Dijkstra carries this one through, and we watch the girl grow, in photographic stages, up through 2008, when she has her own child in the picture. We begin with a scared Bosnian girl, tiny, and end with an acculturated mother. Along the way, we get to see her legs grow, first hanging off the chair, then touching the ground. We see girlhood go by, and exhaustion set in. All the while, she’s sitting on a chair. Minimizing variables.

The book goes on to show some video stills, which of course don’t translate well in book format. I wonder, why do people keep trying? Then, soldiers being militarized, including our friend Olivier Silva. I’ll spare you the photos this time, so as not to arouse the vile anger of some of our less-than-polite readers.

Is it a great book? A work of art, as those London publishers would have us crave? Probably not. A bit too straightforward, and the cardboard cover could certainly be better. But it does give a fair accounting of a great artist. The plates are super-well-printed, and her ideas come through. So if you’re a fan, this would be a good book to have. If not, buy something else.

Bottom Line: Solid monograph from an important artist

To purchase A Retrospective visit Photo-Eye.

Full Disclosure: Books are provided by Photo-Eye in exchange for links back for purchase.

Books are found in the bookstore and submissions are not accepted.


Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 16 Comments On This Article.

  1. Congrats JB. I think announcing a baby on a blog post is SOP these days. Just think, she can go back some day and see the announcement herself and it will be just like those baby books people used to keep.

    • Thanks, Rob.
      SOP? I guess I’ll have to try harder to be original.
      And yes, we’ll have to direct her to this post as soon as she’s old enough to read. Perhaps she’ll hate Dijkstra’s work: one more rebellious child.

      • a birth announcement in a Rineke Dijkstra book review is not only original but probably will not happen again ever.

        she can leave a comment about the emperor’s new clothes…

  2. Saw the show at SF MOMA last week and it really struck me how she’s patiently immersed in these long term projects – revealing changes, revealing people, awkwardness. I thought the video installations were brilliant.

    Congrats on the growing family, Jonathan.

  3. I’ll just put this one in the file with the other “women and children with awkward expressions” photographers. And I’ll throw in a *long-term.

  4. I like the color, reminds me a bit of the sixties, seems a bit stoic and deadpan when is it comes to the faces/

    The cheerful side of the review is the announcement of another part of you entering into the world in a short five months. I have a Christmas son who was born Aug 1 quite a few years ago. Congrats again JB.

  5. Héloïse

    ‘Is it a great book? A work of art, as those London publishers would have us crave? Probably not.’

    I think your wife’s hormones are getting to you!
    It’s published in USA, not Blighty, by the Guggenheim Museum publishers. (We don’t have a Guggenheim in London).
    Thanks for the review!
    and good luck with the new baby – will we see post-birth pics of your wife, posted here too?! lol

  6. My apologies, good Sir!!!
    I was researching Rineke Dijkstra & stumbled upon this site & thought it seemed a strange error. I’ve now read the preceding columns with much interest, both as a British photographer & in that I also live near the Arsenal in leafy Islington (I don’t think I know Hugo though!).
    Photo books are all the rage here in Europe as ‘art objects’ in themselves, a perception energetically championed by Martin Parr, who’s probably UK’s self-styled King of the photo book.
    I am interested in the different opinions, influences and schools of thought across the pond; as America is so huge, my own perception when I worked there, was that it all seemed very familiar, but nevertheless, quite different and separate. (‘Same same, but different’ as they say in Thailand)
    Anyhow…..I’m glad I discovered you & will follow this column/blog(?) with much interest!
    Thank you!