The Numerous Expressions of Rineke Dijkstra at the Guggenheim
Regardless of how photogenic you may, or may not think you are, according to Rineke Dijkstra, we all have a “photo face.” This put-on serves as a reliable default the moment we realize we’re being photographed. However, as the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s latest photography exhibition, Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective, demonstrates, there is beauty in the breakdown of human expression. Seventy-one photographs and five videos fill all four floors of the New York City museum’s annex galleries, and are organized semi-chronologically by the series to which they belong. Co-created between Sandra S. Phillips, the San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art senior curator of photography, and the Guggenheim’s own senior curator of photography, Jenny Blessing, this is the most comprehensive survey of the Dutch born artist’s work in all of North America, and was first noticed by Blessing in 1997. “Large format was a growing trend at the time, but Rineke’s work is unique in how it focuses on the relationship between the viewed and the viewer so as to place us in her shoes,” she said.
Born in Sittard, a southernmost province of the Netherlands, in 1959, Dijkstra studied photography at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam from 1981 to 1986. She was shooting commissioned portraits, freelancing for magazines and newspapers, until a horrific biking accident in 1990 forced her to take a hiatus from her career. Subsequent months of rehabilitation sparked an idea for a self-portrait. A 14’’ x 11’’ chromogenic print, Self Portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 19th, 1991, taken immediately after one of her grueling 30-lap swims, exemplifies Dijkstra’s aesthetic objective to “capture truthful moments when people are less capable or invested in controlling how they appear,” and directly inspired her first artistic series of photographs, Beaches. The Guggenheim presents 13 of these painting-sized portraits of young teenagers, which were taken in a variety of countries, including Poland, England, Croatia, Ukraine, and the United States, inclusive of New York’s Coney Island, using a 4 x 5 Vista field camera. This initial foray into highly crafted photography has proven definitive to Dijkstra’s approach in how she imparts multiple layers of meaning to the viewer. In the case of Beaches, subjects are on edge — literally, standing where ocean meets sand; figuratively, captured during a transitional age; and emotionally, evoking the tension inherent to identity formation during adolescence.
The artist describes her work as an experimental human study in body poses, self-consciousness, and experiential authenticity, ultimately striving to manifest the photographic notion of “freezing a moment in time.” Minimal contextual details draw attention to the complexity of her works’ respective conceptual bases, as well as to the nuance of the sparse details that appear in each image. Constructing parallels between seemingly disparate photography subjects, Dijkstra chose to document the aftermath of two physically demanding tasks — bull fighting and child birth. An image of new mothers holding their newborns immediately after giving birth is displayed opposite from four Portuguese bullfighters still perspiring from having just finished a bullfight.
As a medium of documentary, Dijkstra’s work not only focuses on candid instances, but equally so, showcases change over time. Taking the form of a longitudinal study, Almerisa chronicles the temporal transformation of the subject’s self-titled work. Almerisa was a young Bosnian girl at a Dutch refugee center for asylum seekers, when Dijkstra first photographed her at the age of seven. For the next 15 years, Dijkstra continued taking photographs every one to two years of the girl through adolescence and into adulthood, concluding with a final photograph of Almerisa holding her own newborn baby. Given its duration, and vivid expression, Almerisa proves to be the most impressive feature within the exhibit.
However, in the case of Dijkstra’s series of Israeli soldiers, her illustration of change over time is less affective. A female soldier photographed in uniform during her military service, and then again wearing civilian clothing some months after, lacks the visuo-spatial interest of Almerisa’s evolution. Similarly unremarkable, in comparison to her other portraits, is an image of male soldiers photographed in combat gear holding their weapons; a picture that falls short of conveying significance beyond itself.
Further interested in probing into authentic displays of emotion, Dijkstra began photographing subjects as they were engaged in an activity, so as to be distracted from the presence of a camera. Children, in an image of Berlin’s Tiergarten Park (Animal Garden), are centered, seemingly isolated, within the landscape, looking off into the distance beyond the frame of picture. Dijkstra explains how the children’s wistful expressions, as deliberate as they may seem, were instead actual reactions to witnessing the uncertainty of a Frisbee being caught, or missed by their throwing partner. This practice extended into her video recordings, such as the 12-minute, looped, three channel HD video projection of I See a Woman Crying (Weeping Woman) 2009, in which a group of Catholic school children are at the Tate Museum in Liverpool describing Picasso’s Weeping Woman painting, which is off-camera. Unbeknownst to the pupils, their reactions are the subject of a people watching exercise on observation, empathy, and group thinking. A 32-minute, looped, four channel HD video projection, The Krazyhouse, is another experiential viewing. Shot during the day, in a studio built on a dance floor of a club venue in Liverpool, five teens were filmed in close-up and mid-range dancing to a song of their choice in front of a white backdrop. Improvising choreography is a familiar and thus, relatable activity, as subjects exude a range of emotional states over the soundtrack’s varying tempos and rhythms. Overall, Dijkstra’s body of work is an arresting, imposing, and intimate being that is life-size in scale and humanistic in concept. Dijkstra relies on her intuition and initial fascination to pick her subjects, who most often look directly into the camera lens for a captivating effect.
Even as the practice of documentary photography has become dizzyingly larger, with the advent of digital and mobile phone cameras, online photography galleries and sharing Web sites, Dijkstra’s oeuvre uniquely offers insight into what it feels like to be photographed. In considering a movement in the ’90s of the medium of photography shifting from the margins to the center of fine art, Blessing stated, “her time had come.”
“Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” is on view from June 29th to October 8th, 2012 at the Solomon R. Guggenhem Museum, 1071 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10128. For more information please visit http://www.guggenheim.org or call 212-423-3500.