Rineke Dijkstra Makes the Awkward Sublime

Collection of the Artist © Rineke Dijkstra
Collection of the Artist © Rineke Dijkstra
Odessa, Ukraine, August 4, 1993

Djikstra prefers to photograph young people because they are still unformed—at the threshold moment when their responses to the camera are not perfectly fixed. Set against “timeless” backgrounds that suggest both antiquity and geological time outside history altogether, her early series of pictures made at seashores also present kids who are very recognizably from the 1990s, like this boy on the shore of the Black Sea. All spindly arms and legs, he becomes a perfect emblem of the ungainly but all the same beautiful human animal.

Even before everybody had a digital camera, it was a universal modern skill to take photographs. But more than that, for a long time it’s been a universal skill to be photographed. For several decades now, everybody has known how to put on his or her game face and wait for the click. Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra has become famous by taking that as her point of departure, then wondering what happens when we can’t hold the pose. The answer: a moment of truth. One thing you learn at the new Dijkstra retrospective, currently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and moving in June to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City, is that no matter how much you try to put on the social mask, it keeps slipping.

After graduating from an Amsterdam art school in 1986, Dijkstra, who is 52, made a living for a while shooting portraits for a Dutch business magazine. It was frustrating work, taking pictures of executives who knew all too well how to keep up their guard. Eventually, she returned to more personal picture-taking. Very quickly, Dijkstra found an international audience. For her breakthrough project in the early ’90s, she persuaded teenagers at beaches in the U.S. and Europe to pose against a bare backdrop of sky, sea and shore. The fascination of those pictures comes partly from the mind’s attempt to reconcile the “timeless” setting with the sometimes awkward, and often futile, attempts by the teens to assume the attitudes of glamor and cool they think the camera requires.

Hoping to catch people with their defenses down, Dijkstra started to photograph them in the aftermath of some exhausting event. She got women to pose soon after giving birth, usually standing naked while they cradled their newborns. By 1994 she was also making portraits of Portuguese forcados—amateur bullfighters who enter the ring in unarmed groups to subdue the bulls bare-handed. She photographed them right after they returned from the fight, bloody, scuffed and dented.

To watch someone evolve from youth into adult awareness, Dijkstra has sometimes followed a single subject for years—a French boy who joins the foreign legion, a Bosnian refugee girl as she grows up in the Netherlands—as his or her life goes through changes. Or, as she did with the kids on beaches, she will go to parks and photograph very contemporary people in a setting that pulls them out of time—but only so far. And to make sure her pictures don’t take on a false timelessness, Dijkstra makes sure each one carries in its title the very real location in which it was taken and the date.

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective is on display from Feb. 18 through May 28 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and will open at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City on June 29.

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