Feature

Exhibit of the week: Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective

Dijkstra's great theme is transformation.

San Francisco Museum of Modern ArtThrough May 28

We’re all such posers, said Richard Lacayo in Time. In an age when we all walk around carrying phones with built-in cameras, everyone has learned too well how to put on a “game face” just before the click. Rineke Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer, has made a career of using that moment of affectation as a point of departure, “then wondering what happens when we can’t hold the pose.” The answer, as the photographs in her first North American retrospective attest, is “a moment of truth.”

“Transformation is Dijkstra’s great theme,” said Leslie Camhi in Vogue. Often, Dijkstra’s portrait subjects are teenagers—unformed personalities caught in the act of becoming. Her breakthrough series, from 1997, captured various young bathers, in both the U.S. and Eastern Europe, most standing alone, with waves and sky behind them and sand at their feet. Then she moved on to young Portuguese bullfighters, capturing them moments after they emerged, bloodied and dazed, from the ring. Often, she’ll spend years returning to the same subject, as she did with one Olivier Silva. A “doe-eyed” 17-year-old civilian when he first faced Dijkstra’s camera, Silva undergoes “a dramatic metamorphosis” before our eyes into a stern French Foreign Legion officer. In another series, Dijkstra followed a Bosnian girl from age 6 through young motherhood, photographing her at intervals, always in a similar seated pose. Quite often, “the uncanny loveliness” of Dijkstra’s images “lies not in some idealized vision of youth” but in the tension underlying the subjects’ “inchoate longings” and the reality of who they are in that moment.

A striking feature of Dijkstra’s work is that “the person in front of the camera is all that matters,” said Leo Stutzin in HuffingtonPost.com. While other portraitists make their presence known with heavy-handed direction and stylistic cues, Dijkstra seems determined to disappear. Occasionally, she slips in some cultural commentary. Her American girls, for instance, “clearly look more self-aware, more conscious of their blossoming sexuality, than their Polish and Ukrainian counterparts.” Likewise, her American boys “seem to be working at projecting toughness, an attitude absent in boys photographed along the Black Sea.” In every case, however, the subject seems intent on projecting an image that is undermined by “some measure of vulnerability.” Chances are, you’ll recognize in these photographs some version of your younger self.

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