Photographers on Photographers: Evaluating the Sense of Personal Precariousness in Rineke Dijkstra’s "Beach Portraits"

© Rineke Dijkstra

Post by Lin VanderVliet

Rineke Dijkstra's "Beach Portraits" will always hold a fond place in my heart. It is a series which, inevitably, takes me back to the time during which I wore boys' clothes and would sport T-shirts and surf shirts over my bathing suits, appearing nothing short of pants-less but comfortably secure in avoiding any of the (unwelcomed) changes my body was met with from ages 10-13.  Though I never physically changed a whole lot, I greeted puberty's arrival with a stubborn defiance, refusing to comply with its demands in any way that I could.

In digging up sentiments of budding teenage discomfort, "Beach Portraits" issues churning feelings of self-consciousness by way of a lingering uncertainty regarding the placement of limbs and containment of pose. Depicted against a backdrop of sceneries—coursing waves, horizons of varying heights, smooth sands and gravelly shores, teens and preteens hover before the camera's lens with a range of expressions. Some pose formidably, while others in an exaggerated contrapposto so severe it might as well be mimicking Botticelli's Birth of Venus. However, these are not the portraits of mythical gods and goddesses. They are youths in the throes of adolescence. Whether desperate to advance beyond their years or still clinging determinedly to the threshold of innocence, Dijkstra's images serve as reminders of a growing up long forgotten yet surprisingly vivid in recollection.

Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli

Displaying figures head-to-toe in a vertically composed frame, the photographs which comprise "Beach Portraits" depict a visual unity of sorts. Held together by way of a cohesive and consistent visual presentation, the images are technically adept if not banal seeming at first. While they initially tempt us to "finish quickly" in the way that portraits often do—photographs of people displayed without context—the images give way to a residual scrutiny as well. In an article I once read, Dijkstra's style was described as being akin to "ethnographic photography of colonized peoples," however notably absent of criticism as subjects "are not, at least apparently, strongly differentiated from their viewers."1 No overt attempts have been made to objectify or exoticize the bathers, and the artist's efforts have been described as being favorably void of any irony.2

But nonetheless, there is a vulnerability which permeates Dijkstra's images. Wind blowing and sand sticking to nearly every crevice of your skin, I might venture to dispute the myth that beach usually connotes "sexy" (or carefree exuberance to say the least). The contraption of bathing suits—with their elastic bits, ties, colors, and prints, are an assortment to comprehend, and posing in one as a teen inevitably sports a challenge in itself. In an interview, Dijkstra comments on the bathers' nationalities - comparing and contrasting differences in their attire and pose. For example, in Poland she states, many of the subjects wore old or outdated bathing suits ("some even just wore underpants"), comparing this to the Americans who, by extension, were far more self-conscious in their presentation. Others have commented on a "blurring of national identities," though I'm not sure that distinction isn't (in at least some of the photos) quite easy to discern.4

Take, for example, the blonde teen in the orange bikini—posed defensively with one hand on her thigh and the other holding back her hair, her stomach sucked in with poised apprehension. She wears eye make-up and a small assortment of jewelry, all of which appear to suggest the miniature embodiment of a quintessentially American ideal of beauty. In my introduction to Dijkstra's work, I recall once having heard from a classmate that the orange-bikini-wearer (upon being approached by the artist) was so fraught in knowing she would have her picture taken that she went home to prepare herself for the photo. Now, I can't reinforce the validity of that statement, and I know tons of people would never stoop to such lengths; as such, I'm not sure if it's that effort alone which distinguishes the girl as being so unmistakably American, however I can certainly think of a time in my life where I might've once been tempted to do the same—averaging an hour and thirty minutes just to get ready each morning. And while in the case of other subjects, their assumed preparation (or lack thereof) is seemingly discernible through accessories, attire and pose, each figure appears strangely deliberate in presentation - grounded by the stability of the horizon and accurately centered within the frame.

© Rineke Dijkstra

But I do think that Dijkstra's approach could perhaps have benefitted from a wider spectrum of body types, skin tones, etc. While I appreciate the vastness between subjects' socio-economic statuses and presumed cultural upbringings—a more encompassing collection of figures apart from gangly pre-pubescent girls and Speedo-clad boys with hairless bodies and pruned white skin would be nice. Like the artist, I tend to view these images as being loosely biographical—if not solely representative of Dijkstra's own personal experiences, then additionally of mine as a viewer.5 I don't (necessarily) read these photos as meditations on shyness per se, in spite of all the bare limbs and bathing suits—poses that might have you doubly evaluating yourself the next time you step into a bikini or catch yourself naked before the mirror—but rather in the precarious sense of the subjects' age and how I presume their place in the world. I think of the histories I invent to go with them and how they reflect upon my own.

© Rineke Dijkstra

© Rineke Dijkstra


Lin VanderVliet recently graduated with Honors in Studio Art from Rollins College in Winter Park, FL. Her work seeks to promote a sense of  underlying anxiety by combining photographs with typed text. Reoccurring themes include: a fascination with performance, absurdity, the uncanny and expressions of personal catharsis. Currently, she lives in New Jersey.

1 Julian Stallabrass, "What’s in a Face? Blankness and Significance in Contemporary Art Photography," October 122 (2007): 71, accessed April 14, 2014, doi: http://www.jstor.org/stable/40368490.
2 Rineke Dijkstra, Rineke Dijkstra: Portraits, (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art, 2001), 76.
3 Ibid., 80.
"But the poses of the Americans are really different. I think that in Poland it reminded me of the '60s…I was very sympathetic to this attitude. They were very easygoing. The Americans had very fancy bathing costumes and the poses were more self-conscious. One girl was really holding her belly in and her mother was behind her yelling 'You’re too fat.'"
4 Ibid., 80.
5 Ibid., 79. 
"With the bathers it was very clear to me that they were more or less a self-portrait. They showed what we don't want to show anymore but still feel."