Poignant Pic no. 16 // Harley Cowan
Welcome to number 16 in our series Poignant Pics where we’ve asked photo curators, educators, collectors and makers to share a brief essay on a photo that has significantly changed the way they think or look at the world.
Portland, Oregon photographer Harley Cowan reflects on his encounter with this larger than life portrait by Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra.
In 2012, my wife Carrie and I traveled to San Francisco. We visited the Museum of Modern Art and, after viewing the permanent collection, went to the top floor where there was a retrospective exhibit of Rineke Dijkstra’s photography. I was unfamiliar with the Dutch photographer but immediately taken by her larger than life portraits of adolescents on beaches. It affected me with a deep, undeniable fixation that I had felt once, nearly twenty years earlier, seeing a Da Vinci painting. At the beginning of the exhibit were perhaps eight such beach portraits, all of which I found compelling in their direct, frank connection to the subjects.
These were clearly deliberate portraits, each composed in the same manner, with the person or group centered, the horizon at the lower third. Artificial lighting subtly highlights the subject and darkens the soft, gray-blue background of ocean and sky. Although deliberate, they lacked affectation or contrivance. And while completely unlike Cartier-Bresson, her photographs hold a decisive moment in the form of an uncomfortable silence.
One, in particular, stood out to me. A girl (from Poland as it turns out) in a green swimsuit stands unsurely, her limbs too long; a postmodern Botticelli. She stares obliquely into the camera. Through her gaze, her composure, her stance, the ungainly fit of her suit and her own body, Dijkstra quietly conveys the awkwardness of this age.
I knew next to nothing about large format photography at the time. The prints were marvelous in their monumental scale and left me wondering how they could retain their clarity in enlargement.
I have never been a fan of banal subjects in photography and, at first glance, one might paint Dijkstra’s portraiture with that same brushstroke. After all, these are people of largely indistinguishable nationality, more alike than not in their ordinariness, purposefully happened upon by the photographer. But the power lies in her sensitivity toward their humanity and our common human experience, expressed by capturing the decisive, unguarded moment.
So, why does Dijkstra remain poignant? I don’t photograph like Dijkstra. I work almost exclusively with silver gelatin. I tend to work in documentary settings around historic architecture and infrastructure, particularly in large format film. I enjoy photographing people but tend to stick with medium format, shooting candidly and with available light. So, what’s the moral? I suppose this chance encounter with Dijkstra enlightened me to an available might in the candid portrayal of ordinary subjects; that anyone (or any place or anything) could channel shared truth and, therefore, be a conduit to the viewer. The continuous challenge is to behold that truth, catch it, and make its beauty accessible.
Harley Cowan is a photographer based in Portland, Oregon. He is also an architect. His interest in large format photography led to a research fellowship in architectural heritage documentation and preservation with work in the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) collection in the Library of Congress. He has spoken before the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH), DoCoMoMo_Oregon, University of Oregon, and the Pacific Northwest Preservation Field School. His portfolio of B Reactor at the Manhattan Project National Historical Park at Hanford, Washington can be seen in the Blue Sky Gallery Viewing Drawers for 2018.
His darkroom training began with Ian Beckett of Clark College. He studied large format photography under the tutelage of Ray Bidegain and worked on location as an assistant to Eckert & Eckert Photography. He was selected as a test photographer by the Italian film company FILM Ferrania during the pre-production of P30 Alpha film.
A graduate of Washington State University, he is a member of the Professional Advisory Board for WSU’s School of Design & Construction. Early in his career, he spent six years working in the nuclear industry. His studies also took him to Far Eastern State Technical University in Vladivostok, Russia.