Renowned photographer Rineke Dijkstra has opened a new exhibition Marian Goodman in New York City until December 20. The exhibition features never-seen-before photos from Dijkstra’s archive, carefully selected by the artist herself. Her photos highlight human connections and explore the personal, individualised traits of the portraits’ subjects. Night Watching, a three-part video installation, is also available for viewing at the exhibition.
Exhibition-goers can examine the videos, which feature Rembrandt’s The Night Watch as the focal point. In this interview with Dijkstra herself, the artist discusses the exhibition’s installations, her creative choices, and her personal motivations.
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Brighton, UK, August 19, 1992, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra
Hi Rineke, thank you for speaking with us. Your new exhibition at Marian Goodman in NYC is already open until December, how has the reception been so far?
Very good, thank you. The opening was well attended, there’s been a lot of interest from magazines—including METAL!—and the NYT published a glowing review in the very first week.
The exhibition features videos, never-before-seen pictures from your archive, as well as other series like the Beach Portraits. Could you guide us through the process of putting it together? How did you decide what was in and what was out?
This exhibition consists of photos from my archive and a video installation, all of which are about connection, the ways people relate and interact with each other. In the video installation, Night Watching, fourteen groups of people talk about The Night Watch—Rembrandt’s famous painting at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which like the video itself is a group portrait.
Three years ago, I’d begun reorganising my archive, and during that process of putting all my negatives and contact prints in order and taking a fresh look at everything, I made a selection of couples and groups, people connected to each other in a particular way. When you really focus in on a subject like that, you soon start to see other connections.
At one stage I had selected quite a few groups, but I noticed that not all of them made for equally successful pictures. When a picture really stood out, it was almost always because of the way it expressed a relationship. And surprisingly often, that’s in the details: the subjects’ postures, their expressions, and sometimes their similar outfits. I also noticed that the best photos expressed some kind of contrast, either between the figures or else in their poses or the looks on their faces.
You’re bringing the three-channel video installation Night Watching for the first time to the East Coast. It’s a very meta-artwork, where people speak about Rembrandt’s The Night Watch in front of it. Could you tell us a bit more about the artwork’s concept? What about that artwork struck you so much to make a film around it?
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam had asked me to create a work of art related to The Night Watch. I had previously made a video of a group of British schoolchildren talking about Picasso’s Weeping Woman. That was a successful piece, in which the children offered their own interpretations of the work of art in a very uninhibited way. What intrigued me about this was observing how every individual always sees and interprets from their personal perspective or experience. Ever since then, I’d felt the urge to create another work of the same kind, but with a variety of groups, so that it would include more perspectives. The Night Watch was extremely well suited for this purpose because it’s a militia piece, showing a group of seventeenth-century men who guarded the city like a police force. The traditional militia pieces of those days were always fairly conventional, with all the men in a neat row. Rembrandt added his own twist to the genre by painting the group as if they were in motion, a choice that made the composition much livelier. That meshed well with my idea of inviting fourteen extremely different Amsterdam social groups to reflect on The Night Watch.
The video was made right in front of The Night Watch, in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour. Over the course of six evenings, I had permission to set up a studio there after closing time, so that I could isolate the groups from the everyday activity in the museum and, not insignificantly, manage the sound and lighting.
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Night Watching, 2019. Installation at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Lewis Ronald. © Rineke Dijkstra
It’s curious that the painting doesn’t really appear in Night Watching. When exhibited in Amsterdam, it made more sense because the painting was actually on the room next to the video, but not here. How different do you think this video can be perceived now? How does the absence of the original painting affect the reception of your own artwork?
When I exhibited Night Watching in the Rijksmuseum’s Gallery of Honour—becoming the first female artist with a work on display there—one remarkable fact was that the painting was on the wall right next to it. Now, when I take the installation to other places, such as the Marian Goodman Gallery, the viewers have to make do with a reproduction, which I almost always include somewhere in the exhibition. But of course, you can also just look up the painting on your phone.
But to be honest, it’s not really all that relevant. Night Watching is actually about subjectivity, about the groups I filmed, about group dynamics, about the ways people relate to each other, and about the differences between the groups. The various groups give the viewers an impression of the painting and a sense of how we look at it today, and at the same time we, as observers, form opinions about the groups. I should add that it’s definitely not an attempt to arrive at an objective description of The Night Watch. In fact, the groups’ descriptions and interpretations are often not entirely correct. I think that’s great, because it makes the viewers even more aware that they have to come up with their own interpretations.
Let’s talk a bit about the Pictures from the Archive now. What made you decide to release these never-before-seen photos? What’s new or different about them?
In the selection I made in the nineties, I focused mainly on children and teenagers. Sometimes they were single subjects, and sometimes pairs or small groups. I was interested in young people without inhibitions—what most appealed to me about them was that purity. But also that, in a figurative sense, they were in motion, that they found themselves in a moment of transition, a state of flux. This time, I focused exclusively on groups, concentrating on relationships between people. That leads to a quite different dynamic, with less emphasis on individualism and more on the things that connect people or make them different.
When you originally released the Beach Portrait series, how did you decide what photos to include or not? Do you have a specific creative process you go through when deciding which photos to include or exclude in a series?
I think I do always search for a look of recognition, both while taking the photographs and as I make a selection, because in the selection process you determine the narrative. It wasn’t always that way; in the nineties, I was still much more of a seeker, and that was reflected in my artistic gaze. The portraits I selected then were more vulnerable, the models were on their own. But even then, I was already aware that not every photo I took was good. Without instructions, people don’t usually stand in a way that yields an image. Some kind of tension has to enter the picture, and it often comes from elements such as form, composition, and details. Meanwhile, I’m ultimately looking for something in my portraits that’s both personal and universal.
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Night Watching, 2019. Installation at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Lewis Ronald. © Rineke Dijkstra
Portraiture is core to your work. I guess approaching people might differ depending on their age, nationality, personalities etc. Some might be more shy, others more open or even daring. How do you connect with the people who pose for you? Have noticed many similarities or differences after meeting and portraying such a myriad of people around the world?
I always search for the personal, for the individual traits with which people distinguish themselves from others. What makes one person different from another? I try to observe them closely, both before and during the photo shoot. I pay careful attention to the postures, poses, and gestures they choose. There has to be something casual about the way they carry themselves in the photograph, a certain natural quality; when I look at the photo later, I want to feel that it matches the person we’re seeing, that it’s real.
For example, you see that clearly in the beach pictures. Most of those were taken in the early nineties. The plain background—only the sea, the sky, and the beach are visible—provides no contextual clues or frame of reference. That gives the figures a degree of abstraction and makes the details more striking. As a Dutch woman, I’d noticed that the United States had a much stronger physical culture than Western Europe. I was able to make that clear precisely by focusing in on details. The bathing suits also provided subtle information. In Eastern Europe, in contrast, these media had not yet completely penetrated society. The Communist regime had fallen just three years earlier and was still a strong presence. People were less aware of the power of the image, and that seemed to make them less inhibited—purer, as I saw it. I was interested in investigating how you can use limited visual means to reveal the essence, and in doing so, hopefully also say something more universal.
People are one of the pillars in your work. Given the current state of the world, do you believe in the healing power of art? Does your practice have any aim to bring people together, for example?
That’s a noble goal—I don’t know if art can achieve that, but I did have my reasons for selecting only pairs and groups for this exhibition. I definitely think a photo gives you the chance to take a longer look at another person than you would in everyday life; I hope that evokes a sense of empathy, of shared humanity.
How does your creative process differ when it comes to mediums, such as film vs photography?
At first I worked exclusively as a photographer, but I soon realised that film offered new possibilities: movement, sound, time. Editing also creates all sorts of new possibilities: you can show change over time or development. That’s why film holds greater narrative potential.
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Night Watching, 2019. Installation at Marian Goodman Gallery, London, 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. Photo: Lewis Ronald. © Rineke Dijkstra
Do you have any specific motivations that drive your work as a whole?
The most important things to me are the whole process of working on an idea and the idea’s execution. Whether I’m taking photos or making films, I always try to create a situation in which things can happen. I make my own choice of subject, of situation, but while you’re working, it’s crucial to leave room for chance—for things you hadn’t planned. It’s that constant back-and-forth between control on the one hand and the power of the unexpected, the passing moment, on the other, that’s so important to me.
Do you have any plans for future exhibitions or photo series that you’d like to talk about?
I have a big exhibition coming up late next year at the Berlinische Galerie in Berlin. I’d love to exhibit some new pieces there and put forward a new perspective on my body of work.
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Jones Beach, N.Y., USA, July 19, 1993, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra
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Odessa, Ukraine, August 6, 1993, 1993. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra
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Coney Island, N.Y., USA, June 27, 1993, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra
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Coney Island, N.Y., USA, June 26, 1993, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra
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Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 25, 1992, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Marian Goodman Gallery. © Rineke Dijkstra