Alternating Oracular Transmutations: Review for Rineke Dijkstra’s Retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

por: Ralph Vazquez

Avedon said that all portraits were accurate and none of them were the truth. They are all in a sense a postulation or an argument. Every-time a photographer points the camera at another person he is making a judgment. The grander the judgment the greater the lie.[1]

 -Thomas Broening, San Francisco Photographer

The SFMoMA and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York organized this important exhibition, with the assistance of the Marian Goodman Gallery in New York and Paris and the artist herself. The first retrospective of this key contemporary photographer in the United States brings the residents of San Francisco the unique experience of learning about the oeuvre and relevance of Rineke Dijkstra. In the last 20 years she has asserted herself as an important source artist for emerging photographers, and her simple yet relentless images have dug deep into the collective unconscious of artists of all ages, the same that have watched her career develop in the pages of art magazines and important publications discussing the nature of photography in the midst of a technological revolution, the fusion of major artistic and cultural contexts due to international free markets, and sociocultural theory. The artist, though still young and very much alive, has compiled many ethnological photographic series and projects, and their collected display gives a clear clue as to how the artist thinks, as well as makes us reflect as she does on her subjects, life, society and life in general.

Rineke Dijkstra (b. 1959, the Netherlands) is an artist I first became aware of through the multiple art publications that showcased the contemporary international art scene when I was in school back in the early 2000′s. Her work always caused the activation of an innate empathic gaze which I was able to discuss with fellow artists and other folks from the art scene, and which helped to educate us on how to make a medium with such a brave and yet ridiculous history as the photographic medium and something as innocuous as a portrait and turn it into a device which made the subject something preternatural.

The first photo of the exhibit is a self portrait, taken after a swim during her convalescence after a bike accident — the work that triggered her now trademark style of probing through photographic documentation of people at the threshold of physical or psychological struggle, as well as the usual combination of the two.

Self Portrait Marnixbad Amsterdam, the Netherlands June 19, 1991

In the tradition of Dutch painting Dijkstra explores the genre of portraiture and as the exhibition essay states, “Like Rembrandt she is interested in the complex psychology of her subjects… Like Vermeer she seeks the ‘specialness of the ordinary’.” And she comes out right through the other side of this statement with her very Dutch style of portraiture – the same one she has helped to assert as a respected photographic practice. The essay goes on to say that Dijkstra “relies on photography’s descriptive nature”, and this is manifest in how she presents you not with a spiritually bankrupt and synthetically staged image, like the work of photographer David LaChapelle, whose work is about everything else except the wholesome, natural and organic aspects of humanity. The way I see it, Dijkstra lies in the opposite side of the continuum from LaChapelle, and endows her work and her subjects the power to connect us all in our thoughts of change, youth and age in general, veritable experiences and about the transformative journey that we call life. Dijkstra places the person discussed in her series in front of the camera, very much like we put cell cultures under a microscope, to bear witness to how they interact and the complexity of their interplay and relationships; to see and guess about how they work inside and out. The final products are works that are rich in detail – works that like the work of Rembrandt and Vermeer are a window into the intangible component of humanity.

Young bathers at the edge of the ocean, relaxed and unguarded teens in public parks, and young subjects undergoing great personal transitions… these are just some of the themes explored in the retrospective, which touches what the artist states are “the complexities of life, which are more visible when we are young”. Dijkstra portrays them with great empathy and with an admirably efferent distance. Her work can be described as a tribute to uniqueness and the grandeur of each individual’s experience, and it communicates much more than “this is what I have to say” – This artist’s work communicates her deeply sympathetic understanding of the hardships and anxieties we all share as we wade through life.

Portraits of youths in beaches around the world:

These photos were taken of youths at an age before adulthood has defined their features. The beach is a perfect setting to capture their likeness for it is universally seen in Western culture as a place where one goes to free oneself of our ordinary lives and concerns. Like the essay about the works said, “details in the photographs are meant to collectively define a psychological understanding of these youths…and also detect subtle cultural differences.” The works are tender, and one can’t help but to empathize with the likeness of a total stranger.

De Panne, Belgium August 7, 1992

Hilton Head Island, S.C, U.S.A. June 24, 1992

Jalta, Ukraine July 30, 1993

Portraits of people who had experienced a traumatic event that left them too exhausted to maintain the usual social facades:

In these series Dijkstra photographs Potuguese forcados, a type of bullfighter, which is clearly incredibly dangerous, but is a cultural practice in Portugal. The photographer poetically reveals the harshness and magnitude of their experience.

Montemor, Portugal May 1, 1994

Another series is the series of the women who had just given birth. Which is a beautiful set of images that evokes an almost holy aura around them – these women hold their babies and stand like Amazons ready to protect their most precious young from any ill will, still not without the impact of the process of childbirth itself. They bear the scars of their turmoil with pride and serenity. This series is among the most emotive of the series by Dijkstra.

Julie den Haag, the Netherlands March 6, 1994

 The Buzz Club series:

This series were taken in a seedy club for youths in Liverpool, England. The teenagers’ hotspot inspired both the series of photographs and the artit’s first video installation, The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/Mystery World Zaandam, NL (1996-97). The video was of an extended exposure, so much that the subjects had time to acclimatize and become totally immune to the camera’s presence and thus sink into their own circumstance. The accompanying essay about these works made an important commentary about the video, “youth’s ambivalence, so typical of adolescence itself — especially in a culture where public and private life are confusingly intermixed — is the real subject of this video.” And the work delivers in its mission to highlight the qualities of these youths that make them so unique and such utterly fragile creatures.

The Buzz Club Liverpool, England March 1995

I have always linked Dijkstra’s work in my mind to such works as Larry Clark’s Kids, movies by John Hughes, and television shows like American and European versions of Skins, because of their desire to speak of the youth as a period which is definitive in our personal developments – as a period when we shed a layer of ourselves and settle into a new identity, a new body, a new worldview and a new set of responsibilities. The artist’s work, like all those other mentioned cultural items seeks to not just point out these characteristics of youth, they also seek to create an empathic bridge that makes it clear that we all share the same worries, and same fears as our youth, only manifested through a different looking glass which may or may not warp our sense of reality and which we call experience.

In the installation there are club kids, partially  isolated from the club atmosphere, where they pose for the camera. The duration of the intimation with the camera allows for the personality to be drawn out, and the youths become absorbed in their own reality.

The Olivier Silva series:

These series of photographs follow the route of a young man in the French Foreign Legion, like the accompanying essay explained the series “charts his transformation from idealistic boy to an emotionally distant and confident young man whose business is soldiering.” The final product is a series that depicts the hardening of a young man, and the expurgation of fear and insecurity to make way for determination and self-assurance.

Olivier The French Foreign Legion Quartier Vienot Marseille, France July 21, 2000

Olivier The French Foreign Legion Quartier Monclar Dijbouti, Dijbouti July 13, 2003

The Krazyhouse series:

The Krazyhouse photographs and video installation document a cultural shift, having been taken more than 10 years after the first club kid series. Contrasted with The Buzz Club, this new series of club kids seem like they are more aware and forthright youths than those of the previous work. In the photographs by Dijkstra high school girls express an almost socialite distinctiveness, one more unruffled and confident than the earlier generation.

Nicky The Krazyhouse Liverpool, England January 19, 2009

In the Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee) (2009) installation Dijkstra graduates to a 4 channel video installation, each projected onto a wall in a room. In this evidently more elaborate work, the youths own the presence of the camera and display their characteristics in a most unflappable manner. It is hardly the same youth as the Buzz Club, and these youths encarnate perhaps enven more powerfully the message packed in both series developed by the artist – the point is driven home without any adornment; the youth has the same appetites as their adults counterparts and a much more resourceful way of expressing self confidence. This truth if embraced can serve to bridge the intergenerational removal, and perhaps lead to curious arguments about our society at large.

In 1998 Dijkstra begins a series of portraits of men and women at the time of their induction into the Israel Defense Forces. Military service is mandatory for almost all citizens over 18 in Israel. The portraits were taken at time of induction into the army and then again after several months of training. You can see the psychological and physical contrasts very clearly, and how a youth changes after a process which purpose is to hone mental and physical character.

Omri Givatti Brigade Golan Heights, Israel September 25, 2000

 “I see a woman crying”:

By 2008 Dijkstra had achieved such prominence as to have been invited by Tate Liverpool to do a community oriented work. She made I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman) and Ruth Drawing Picasso by the year 2009. Cameras follow schoolchildren as they observe and discuss the famous and iconic Picasso work Portrait of Dora Maar. Dijkstra’s high regard of their empathy and imagination is clear. Like the exhibition essay states,  “their understanding of this woman’s suffering is presented as a worthy insight that we adults forget at our peril”. The source work is a portrait, and Dijkstra seeks to document children’s reaction to it. In this manner she does not stray that far from the work done earlier; she is still using the camera and the spectator as probes into her subjects.

The Park series:

At the end of the exhibition there is a particularly cozy hall which exhibits one of the more whimsical series by Dijkstra. She began this series in the year 1998 and it consists of a series of portraits of youths in leisurely poses in parks. Inspired by Edouard Manet’s Le dejeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass) (1862-63). Though Dijkstra’s photographs are deeper in the psychological clues provided about the subjects the work by Manet serves to create a sense of atmosphere that dialogues with Dijkstra’s own selection of locations for her prior photographic series. The final product is a series of photographs that serves to inspire a sense of freedom, portent and significance – a sense of empathy with a feeling that we all share and may have had intimations with throughout our lives, the forever rejuvenating feeling of contentment and felicity in the presence of nature.

Vondelpark Amsterdam, the Netherlands June 19, 2005

Like Thomas Ruff, with his serial conceptual photography, Chuck Close, with his painting size prints bearing monumental subjects that appear to stare right through you, Judith Joy Ross, with her iconic renderings, as well as many other contemporary photographers Dijkstra has expanded the possibilities of the all pervasive medium of photography, to still pertinently communicate unexplored truths about portraiture. And going back to the epigraph of this review we have to arrive at the conclusion that what these artists have all done is more than just create impressive art, they have cleverly sought ways to avert the lie Avedon spoke about. Godspeed to Dijkstra in this exhibition project, one I hope gets to travel around the country, as to inspire young American photographers into visualizing, like Dijkstra has, new horizons for the preeminent medium of photography in the doorstep of a still very new century.

The exhibition is, in my opinion, a pleasurable success, and I welcome you to visit it if you can at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

For more information about this exhibit please visit:

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