When I first met Jenny Riffle, she had already been photographing her boyfriend, Riley, for several years. Their one-bedroom apartment was intricately arranged with Riley’s findings: a large poster advertising Raleigh cigarettes, which he found behind the drywall in an abandoned building; old revolvers and shotgun bullets he collected while metal-detecting off of forest pathways; and cloudy bottles of various sizes, softened by years of sifting Brooklyn beach sand. Doll heads with cheeks too rosy and features dulled by wear leered from corners, and old clippings of cars hung tacked to the wall above their gold couch. There in that one-bedroom apartment in Seattle’s Capitol Hill I had found a collection of treasures, meticulously cleaned and arranged by their finders into a collection of consumerism turned junk.
But I first came to know Riffle’s photography through her younger sister—my girlfriend, Emily. Riffle has been taking photographs of Emily once a year on her birthday, since Emily was 15. Similar to Nicholas Nixon’s “The Brown Sisters,” a series of photographs taken each year of Nixon’s wife and her sisters, “Emily” works as a compilation and a meditation on time. By continuing to reexamine a subject, Riffle accrues images that simulate the progression of time while simultaneously freeing the subject from the metonymy of portraiture that claims to define a person with the blink of a shutter. Besides chronicling the process of aging, “Emily” dwells on the multiplicity that makes up a single person. As Riffle, who teaches photography at the Photo Center Northwest, writes in her description of the project, “Seeing the progression of birthday photos shows how my sister has changed over the years, but in the end for me she will always encompass all the images at once.” This is what makes Riffle’s portraits like stories. They may not have classic beginnings, middles, or endings, but they have an element of wholeness that classic portraiture lacks.