The Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra uses her camera the way a paleontologist uses carbon dating, to reveal the evolutionary layers hidden beneath appearances. Her large-scale, classically restrained color portraits—poised between conceptual art and quasi-scientific record—are both psychologically astute and intensely mysterious. This small show at Marian Goodman Gallery continues the explorations of time and physiognomy that have informed her pictures of mothers and infants just after birth and seaside bathers on the cusp of adulthood. Here her subject is war, and, more specifically, an individual’s gradual indoctrination into a fighting unit.
A series of photographs taken over 18 months and ending last August depicts an Israeli teenager from the day her obligatory military service begins to the instant she leaves the army, clad in a civilian T-shirt. “Shany” starts as a tousled, smiling, gap-toothed tomboy; the subtle transformation of her wounded brown eyes appears to chart the course of an entire society.
More remarkable still are the pictures Dijkstra has shot in the past three years of a young man, Olivier S., voluntarily inducted into the French Foreign Legion. The soft and puppyish 17-year-old already looks quite different on the morning that his head is shaved and he’s placed in uniform. A few months later, his face is smeared with war paint, recalling an ancient ritual of scarification. Gradually, as his body bulks up and his visage hardens, his hesitancy seems to dissolve in the harsh light of the desert sun, as he moves between bases in France, Corsica, and Djibouti.
In these and other works, such as those devoted to a little Bosnian girl, a refugee who becomes a Belgian teenager (now showing in the International Center for Photography’s Triennial exhibition), Dijkstra invests a format ubiquitous in contemporary photography with a rare degree of tenderness and humanism.