Armchair cultural critics and whistleblowers everywhere love to villainize youth culture as looks-obsessed. But is expressing yourself through your appearance--even if the expression is simply “I love Justin Bieber"--really such a bad thing? How we style ourselves, while often based in vanity, is also a fascinating glimpse into our personalities.
That’s the basic inference behind Rineke Dijkstra’s work. The Dutch photographer foregrounds the careful personas that we craft for ourselves as we grow up: fragile, often defiant, and sometimes angry, they change on an almost daily basis during childhood and adolescence.
Dijkstra is the subject of a new mid-career retrospective, shared between the Guggenheim and San Francisco MoMA, that opened on June 29th. Seventy photographs and five films survey the artist’s 20-year career.
It’s a challenge to describe the expressions of her subjects. Dijkstra mainly shoots young people, but other recent series capture mothers just after giving birth, and matadors just after leaving the bullfighting ring. Which makes sense. Adults tend to have better control of their facial expressions, but major stresses--like giving birth, or a brush with death--tear away our grown-up masks to reveal the raw emotion underneath. Her well-known Beach Portraits (1992-2003) show kids at the beach, which seems like a simple enough premise. But the portraits are magnetic. Amidst knobbly knees and hilarious get-ups are intense, emphatic facial expressions. The images have often been compared to portraiture of the Dutch Masters.
One series, Almerisa, began in 1994 as a single portrait of a young Bosnian refugee. Dijkstra returned to photograph the girl as she grew into an adult--the series is ongoing. She began working with video in the mid '90s, filming Dutch and English “club kids” as they dance against a white backdrop. The videos dig up a whole host of feelings in the viewer: jealousy (I wish I was young!), embarrassment (Wow, did I look this idiotic? Answer: You looked worse.) and fascination (Kids these days!). Deep down, aren’t we all just kids in all-camo jumpsuits, shaking it for all it’s worth?
Dijkstra’s lens is almost like an emotional X-ray machine, drawing out the fear, joy, and sheer energy of being alive. By letting teenagers play out their carefully constructed public personas, she captures something far more complicated.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective is on view until October 8.