Who are you?

Jessica Backus
Nov 6, 2012 9:01PM

There is a seriousness and a hopefulness in [my series of] Beach Portraits, a gravity very much like being present at a baptismal scene: they have a conscious monumentality, a deliberate counterbalance to the psychological tenuousness and complexity of the subjects themselves. They all stand in the center of the picture; the focuses on the details of the figure, with the surrounding environment - the beautiful light, the distant sea - all subservient to the depiction of the central character. -Rineke Dijkstra

What does it mean to take a portrait, to capture the likeness of a person? Does a sitter reveal herself in her vulnerabilities, personality, or facial expressions? Is this something the camera – a mechanical device with the historical baggage of prom pictures, family portraits, mug shots and vacation photos – is even equipped to do?

Recently it seems, a number of brilliant portrait photographers have been offering their take on some of these questions. Rineke Dijkstra, for example, in her “Beach Portraits” series, depicts adolescents on the beach in different countries. Many of the American children are made-up and knowingly posed, while a boy on the beach in Poland appears unsure in his own skin. This series reveals cultural differences in ideals of beauty and modes of self-presentation, while sensitively portraying a subject whose individuality demands slow viewing.

Thoms Ruff's seminal 1980s series of portraits of his classmates, dressed down, restrained, and austere, heralded a new view of the subject. His sitters are both aloof and engaged; the photographs, printed large, paradoxically render his modest subjects monumental. The repetitive nature of this series, in which all sitters adopt the same pose, has prompted many critics to call Ruff's project a "sociological exercise" or a typology of a generation - a categorization which Ruff has denied.

 On this series, Ruff has commented: 

I worked on the principle that a photo cannot reveal anything about the sitter's personality, that the photo merely reproduces the surface of things and is unable to capture the content... Generally people look straight at the camera. I barely alter the positions. I might say to them, chin up slightly, look a fraction right, a fraction left. Then I begin shooting. I ask them to look at me with a  lot of self-confidence. Generally for the first five shots I barely need to have film in the camera because the person is, if not nervous, unfocused at least. As soon as the flash goes off, the situation changes. I get the shot in one of the next series of five. In the end I'd say that my photographs have relatively little to do with the person being photographed. I'd say it is very difficult to interpret my portraits. How old is this person, what job do they do, who's their mother, who's their father, how many brothers and sisters do they have? It's totally absurd to ask a photograph to provide all that information. I refuse to make it a sociological exercise, to analyze personalities, or to use a style that gives clues to the person's personality. The truth is that I merely capture the person's appearance. 

These questions were the inspiration for a gene for Contemporary Realist Portraiture currently in the works. While some artists err slightly on the side of the sensitive and personal, and others on the side of the anonymous and objective, the exploration of the gap between individuality and a societal type, and between self-posturing and candidness, harkens back to the Neue Sachlichkeit portraiture of August Sander in the 1920s. 


Colin Westerbeck, "Untitled (Ralph Müller), 1986; Untitled, 1988; Untitled, 1988 by Thomas Ruff," Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 25, No. 1, Modern and Contemporary, The Lannan Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago (1999), pp. 54-57 and 102-3.

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

Jessica Backus