Rineke Dijkstra’s Portraits: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Digital Time

by Elizabeth Keto, Harvard College
Originally published in the Spring 2016 edition.

In 1964, E.H. Gombrich wrote that “[w]hile the problem of space and its representation in art has occupied the attention of art historians to an almost exaggerated degree, the corresponding problem of time…has been strangely neglected.”1 A strikingly similar imbalance characterizes contemporary responses to the rise of digital technologies: most descriptions of digital experience turn on the metaphor of space. Yet no less radical than the invention of cyberspace has been the Internet’s transformation of the human experience of time.

Within digital space, we are paradoxically both more and less aware of the passage of time: though most computers display a time accurate to the minute, we often find that time passes unnoticed in our absorption in the Internet’s wealth of information. The immersive reality of digital experience renders our instinctual, embodied sense of time unreliable. Our primary frame of reference for the duration of our online activity then becomes the external, mechanical, and objective time kept for us on the computer screen.

Moreover, the advent of the Internet has transformed the temporality not only of individual lives, but also of social life. Online communities rely on continuity in time rather than space: as long as multiple users are online at the same time, the distance between them is immaterial. As social life increasingly takes place online, the social body becomes a product of overlapping presences in time. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a contemporary theorist on new media and post-industrial capitalism, argues that “during the last years, perhaps the last decade, we lost touch with our body—with our social body, and our physical, erotic body. Net culture and all the new forms of digital production and new media have erased our relationship with our social body.”2 This loss of contact, this dissociation of cognitive and bodily forms of experience, has occurred in time as much as in space. The Internet has come to undermine our physical sense of time, to erode the basis of an older and more fully embodied temporality.

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, born in 1959, addresses and critiques this objectification of time in her work. Her photographic portraits reinvest time with a bodily dimension: she captures her subjects at those moments when the passage of time is known by the body as well as the mind, such as adolescence (fig. 2) or a recovery from a traumatic physical event (fig. 1).

Dijkstra’s work inevitably intersects with the transformation of art and society by the Internet. She dates the beginning of her artistic practice to a 1991 self-portrait, taken after an exhausting swim during her recovery from a bicycle accident3 (fig. 3).Though the catalyst for her work was a personal event, she developed her photographic vision in the context of the rapid rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, as graphical user interfaces became widespread and the Internet opened to commercial uses.4 Dijkstra’s work also focuses almost exclusively on subjects under the age of twenty-five, a demographic likely to include the Internet’s earliest and most enthusiastic users.5 Her career has coincided with photography’s transformation into the dominant form of pictorial representation online. By 2013, Katrina Sluis, a curator at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, would assert that “the medium [of photography] has been completely diffused into general computing.”6

Dijkstra’s first photographic project, her Beach Portraits of 1992-2002, reflects her critical engagement with the effect of digital technologies on the human body and its image. In this series of photographs of adolescents taken on beaches from Hilton Head, South Carolina, to Odessa, Ukraine, she presents visions of the human body that differ radically from the ways in which we view others’ bodies or present our own online. Where digital spaces tend to quicken and scatter the gaze with an overabundance of visual stimuli, Dijkstra’s works concentrate the viewer’s attention. Her large format photographs, taken with a four-by-five field camera, dominate the viewer’s field of vision.7 She photographs figures singly or in small groups, centered against the relatively neutral background of the shore. As Dijkstra commented in a 2005 interview, “The three-part division of sand, sea, and sky…makes a nearly abstract background that isolates the models.”8

Not only the formal qualities of Dijkstra’s photographs, but also her working process reflects her resistance to the artifice of online visual representation. While the Internet allows users to select and present images of themselves to the public, Dijkstra seeks to capture her subjects in moments of unguardedness. In the same interview, she explained, “I don’t want a pose in which people comply with a certain image [that] they try to control and that reveals only the intention of how they want to be perceived…I wait for a moment in which they display a certain introversion.”9

The Beach Portraits also implicitly refuse and subvert digital time by asserting the continuing reality of time as experienced in and through the body. The series represents adolescents: figures in the midst of a stage of life at which the passage of time is felt deeply as physical change, when the passage of time itself renders one aware of the “physical, erotic body.” Sandra Phillips writes of one of Dijkstra’s youthful subjects, “the boy’s arms are too long: he has not yet grown into his body”10 (fig. 4). Some of Dijkstra’s subjects display an uncomfortable self-consciousness, visible in the tension in the left shoulder and collarbone of one teenage girl (fig. 5) or the stiff, locked elbows and knees of another (fig. 6). The historical time of the images also becomes visible on the subjects’ bodies, in that the styles of their bathing suits and haircuts allow the viewer to identify the period in which the photographs were made.

Similarly, the setting of these portraits represents a time experienced primarily through the body. The sea in the backgrounds of the photographs evokes a sensorial temporality accessible to ears and eyes: the repetitive sound of waves becomes a natural metronome, and the progress of the tides indicates the passage of the hours. Time reasserts itself as subjectively and viscerally experienced rather than objectively and cognitively known.

Dijkstra’s work thus responds to contemporary social and technological change, to the state of the body in digital time. Current criticism of Dijkstra’s work, however, tends to emphasize her personal interest in the affective potential of photography, or to situate her work within the art historical precedents of photography and Dutch portrait painting.11 Yet Dijkstra’s response to the digital transformation of time deepens both her work’s affective commitments and art historical references. Her reassertion of an embodied time against an objective digital time is ultimately a reminder of human frailty. Digital technology has in many ways rendered our online selves immortal: historian Ekaterina Haskins writes that with the advent of the Internet, “virtually everyone can leave an imprint on the fabric of public memory by sharing images and stories with millions of other users.”12 An individual’s every activity online is recorded digitally and stored indefinitely.13 The Internet offers to its users—or enforces upon them—a theoretically endless existence in the digital archive. Dijkstra’s contrary assertion of her subjects’ vulnerability to time heightens the empathetic, affective appeal of her photographs to an equally vulnerable viewer. Moreover, her emphasis on human mortality places her in dialogue with Dutch artistic traditions. Like the 16th and 17th century Dutch still life painters who included an insect-bitten flower in an overflowing bouquet, or a human skull amid the welter of objects on a table, Dijkstra reminds the viewer of the inevitable effect of time upon the body.

Dijkstra’s engagement with digital time also extends her engagement with the possibilities of her medium. Her portraits activate the potential latent in the photograph itself to differentiate a bodily space-time from a cognitive space-time. In 1964, Roland Barthes wrote that “[w]hat we have [in the photograph] is a new space-time category: spatial immediacy and temporal anteriority.”14  A photographic image renders a past time visually and spatially present to the viewer. In a similar divorce of cognitive experience from physical presence, the Internet renders spatially separated—but temporally continuous—users present to each other. Indeed, critic Jonathan Crary has explicitly linked the historical effects of the photograph with the contemporary implications of the Internet. He describes the advent of photography in the 19th century and the rise of computer graphics in the 20th century in similar terms of bodily alienation, in terms of the “relocating [of] vision to a plane severed from a human observer.”15 Both photography and the Internet break down a unified bodily and cognitive experience of space-time, and Dijkstra uses the expressive potential of the former to reflect critically on the workings of the latter.

Franco Berardi posits that the alienation of the “cognitariat” from knowledge of their bodies is neither inevitable nor irreversible. He writes, “There is a moment when they can become aware of the fact that they are not purely virtual, they are not purely economic, that they also are physical bodies.”16 The radicality of Dijkstra’s seemingly traditional portraiture lies in its potential to intervene in digital time, to create the conditions for this moment of encounter and renewed awareness of the body.

Yet photographs, vulnerable to damage by extended exposure to light, today often circulate in digital rather than physical space. Dijkstra’s images are more readily accessible to the public in online publications or digitized museum collections than on gallery walls. Presented as they are digitally—at a smaller scale, without a physical presence, and in the context of the plenitude of online visual stimuli—Dijkstra’s photographs may lose their affective potential. Whether Dijkstra’s photographs can present an alternative to digital structures of space and time from within those very structures remains an open question.

Images Referenced

1E.H. Gombrich, “Moment and Movement in Art,” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 27 (1964), 293. Recently, scholars have devoted increased attention to this gap in the art historical literature. See, for example, Alexander Nagel and Christopher S. Wood’s Anachronic Renaissance (New York: Zone Books; Cambridge, MA: Distributed by The MIT Press, 2010) and Keith Moxey’s Visual Time: The Image in History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013).
2Franco Berardi, “Net Culture, New Media, and the Social Body,” interview by Wolfgang Sützl, Future Non Stop: A Living Archive for Digital Culture in Theory and Practice, Institute for New Culture Technologies, http://future-nonstop.org/c/3234b5df726db2899b21c6127dea4470 (accessed January 20, 2015). 
3Sandra S. Phillips, “Twenty Years of Looking at People,” in Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012), 19. 
4Paul DiMaggio et al., “Social Implications of the Internet,” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001), 307. 
5Jennifer Blessing, “What We Still Feel: Rineke Dijkstra’s Video,” in Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012), 29.
6Katrina Sluis, Julian Stallabrass, and Christiane Paul, “The Canon After the Internet,” Aperture 213 (2013), 37.
7Phillips, 18.
8Rineke Dijkstra, interview by Jan van Adrichem, in Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, (New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012), 51.
9Dijkstra, 47.
10Phillips, 19.
11Sally Stein, “Review: Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective,” Aperture 209 (2012), 16.
12Ekaterina Haskins, “Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age,” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37 (2007), 408.
13Will Thomas DeVries, “Protecting Privacy in the Digital Age,” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 18 (2003), 291.
14Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image,” (1964) in Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath (London: Fontana, 1977), 44.
15Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992), 1.

Image Sources

Figure 1. Rineke Dijkstra, Tia, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 14 November 1994, Tia, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, 23 June 1994, 1994. Source: Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/collection/works/55601?locale=en.

Figure 2. Rineke Dijkstra, Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 22, 1992, 1992. Source: Art Institute of Chicago, http://www.artic.edu/aic/collections/artwork/158455?search_no=1&index=0.

Figure 3. Rineke Dijkstra, Self-Portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 19, 1991, 1991. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/2003.231.

Figure 4. Rineke Dijkstra, Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 23, 1992, 1992. Source: Tate, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dijkstra-kolobrzeg-poland-july-23-1992-p78329.

Figure 5. Rineke Dijkstra, Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992, 1992. Source: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, https://www.sfmoma.org/artwork/98.232.

Figure 6. Rineke Dijkstra, De Panne, Belgium, August 7, 1992, 1992. Source: Tate, http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/dijkstra-de-panne-belgium-august-7-1992-p78328.jpg

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. “Rhetoric of the Image.” (1964). In Barthes, Roland. Image, Music, Text. Ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. London: Fontana, 1977.

Berardi, Franco. “Net Culture, New Media, and the Social Body.” Interview by Wolfgang Sützl. Future Non Stop: A Living Archive for Digital Culture in Theory and Practice. Institute for New Culture Technologies.

Blessing, Jennifer. “What We Still Feel: Rineke Dijkstra’s Video.” In Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012.

Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1992.

DeVries, Will Thomas. “Protecting Privacy in the Digital Age.” Berkeley Technology Law Journal 18 (2003): 283-311.

Dijkstra, Rineke. Interview by Jan van Adrichem. In Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012.

DiMaggio, Paul et al. “Social Implications of the Internet.” Annual Review of Sociology 27 (2001): 307-336.

Gombrich, E.H. “Moment and Movement in Art.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 27 (1964): 293-306.

Haskins, Ekaterina. “Between Archive and Participation: Public Memory in a Digital Age.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 37 (2007): 401-422.

Phillips, Sandra S. “Twenty Years of Looking at People.” In Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective. New York: Guggenheim Museum Publications, 2012.

Sluis, Katrina, Julian Stallabrass, and Christiane Paul. “The Canon After the Internet.” Aperture 213 (2013): 36-41.

Stein, Sally. “Review: Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective.” Aperture 209 (2012): 16-17.

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