New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 31 October 3 to 9, 2012

Teenage Wasteland
Rineke Dijkstra
A Retrospective
Don Burmeister
Amy, The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, England, December 22, 2008 by Rineke Dijkstra. Source:
Rineke Dijkstra, "Amy, The Krazyhouse, Liverpool, England, December 22, 2008"

There are some sweet moments in the rather awkwardly presented, mid-career retrospective of Rineke Dijkstra currently spread over 4 floors at the Guggenheim. And why not? Dijkstra specializes in portraits of teenagers – awkward, anxious, determined, placed into positions that they can barely understand, and then occasionally filled with vivaciousness and charm. Dijkstra’s portraits are honest and direct, their point of view seemingly transparent, and they offer a clear window through which the viewer can project his or her own teenage years onto the faces and young bodies of the models. What’s not to like?

Rineke Djikstra began to be noticed in the early ‘big color’ years at the close of the twentieth century. Closely associated with the Düsseldorf school of photographers (eg Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky et al.) her first large prints were of young people at the beach, apparently just passing by, and mostly in swimming attire, who were asked to stand for a portrait. Photographing with a large format camera and fill lighting, the resulting images featured the model’s brightly lit face and body looming over the somewhat darker natural background. All the awkwardness, fashion compromises, skin conditions and body growth disparities were there for the world to see. These were about as far away from the soft focus “artnography” of David Hamilton’s young girls as one can get.

The wide-spread artworld success of these beach images allowed Dijkstra to pursue a number of other projects, always focusing on portraits of young people. We see scatterings of photographs of roughed up young men after the running of the bulls in Pamploma, young women shortly after giving birth, young Israeli soldiers posing with and without their weapons, and then a series of group photographs of adolescents in public parks. The most notable series follow several individuals over time. In one we see ‘Almarisa’ over the course of a decade, first as a young refugee from the Bosnian war, then as an assimilating Dutch teenager, and then as a young mother herself. These series are straight forward, and have the inherent interest of people seen close up, but they lack the graphic punch of the beach portraits.

Djikstra’s images emerge directly from the large color, frontal portraits of Thomas Ruff, which were first done a few years before Djikstra’s portraits, with the strand of both of their work tracing back, in essence, to August Sander as mediated by Hilda and Bernd Becher. A secondary influence, seen especially in the images of young people in parks, is Diane Arbus. Rather than searching to find “types” of people as did Sanders (and perhaps too Ruff,) Dijkstra is drawn to the outliers, the black swans. One of the reasons that many of her early beach portraits are striking is because the people in them look so odd.

Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992 by Rineke Dijkstra. Source:
Rineke Dijkstra, "Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992"

The most recent work in the show centers on four videos. The first of these, done in 1996 and 1997, “The Buzz Club, Liverpool, UK/ Mystery World, Zaandam, NL” was to this viewer the low point of Dijkstra’s career. Young clubgoers were brought aside to dance in front of a white screen. The characteristic awkwardness of most of the dancers seems to be highlighted, but what comes across more strongly is the brazenness of the videographer. The kids are stoned and drunk, some are barely able to stand up, but the videoing continues relentlessly. The power of the adult to force these people to ‘dance’ on command is chilling. A sense of engagement with the sitter is at the heart of any portrait, but in this video we are seeing sausage being made, there is no empathy between subject and the artist. It is rare that a single moment can change one’s feelings about an artist, but this video recasts much of Dijkstra’s earlier work; moving it from an exploration of teenage anxieties to exploitation of young, not fully aware individuals.

Fortunately, the later videos on display show a little bit more sympathy with the sitters, or perhaps just more judicious editing. “The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool, UK” is similar to “Buzz Club”, but perhaps because the dancers are a little bit younger, and a lot less stoned, their dancing can be positively joyous. And the last two videos taken at the Tate Modern museum are of pre-teenagers engaging with works on display are absolutely subdued. Perhaps as Dijkstra herself moves into her 50’s, she is beginning to realize that for adults, the only proper attitude towards teenagers is to just try to ignore them, and wait until they grow up.

Rineke Dijkstra
A Retrospective

Guggenheim Museum
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Tuesday, June 26 to
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