There are turning points in all artists’ lives. For celebrated Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra, that moment occurred in 1991, after a hip-shattering bicycle accident left her bedridden for five months and at loose ends for some time after. Free to contemplate her immediate past as a commercial portraitist and her underdeveloped future as an artist, the young shutterbug chose to photograph herself surfacing from a 30-lap swim that served as part of her grueling rehabilitation. What she found framed there was familiar yet mostly unexpected—drenched, defiant, and far too exhausted to consciously pose for the camera, she emerged as a nakedly guileless self inside a nearly transparent skin.
Twenty-one years later, Dijkstra has become an artistic giant devoted to unforced, feeling versions of what cinematographers call “the reveal.” An idea that usually refers to the pivot around which most narrative TV and movies turn, this artistic grail has guided Dijkstra in a constant search for discovery beneath her subjects’ surface appearances. Known to photograph mostly children and teenagers because, as she puts it, “they have no defined image of themselves yet,” Dijkstra finds her art precisely where her sitters’ self-consciousness tries to conceal their secrets. Displayed through details arrested and blown up as only machined reproduction can, their vulnerabilities and enthusiasms lift a curtain on their psyches. What’s left reads open, candid, and nearly hypnotically sympathetic.
The linchpin of a justly celebrated career, Dijkstra’s small self-portrait hangs together with another 70-plus photographs (they are mostly larger) and five videos inside the Guggenheim’s four annex galleries. (The Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda is occupied by “Art of Another Kind,” a show of 1950s abstraction.) The eureka moment that, along with other revelations, eventually led to this first U.S. retrospective of the artist’s work, Dijkstra’s early artistic hunch remains the operating logic behind her project. Her art is an exploration of the age-old truism that every personality hides an alter ego—a notion animating corny sidewalk portraitists from Central Park to Amsterdam’s Dam Square. Yet Dijkstra’s unsentimental pictures routinely avoid cliché. Her work—as evidenced by this enthralling survey—instead shines forth with convincing clarity: What in other artist’s hands looks like truthiness, in Dijkstra’s appears disarmingly like the truth.
Dijkstra’s highly realist portraits, despite their relatively improvised feel, are the product of an elaborate and thoroughgoing working method. The opposite of casual snapshots, her pictures involve location scouting, casting (she has described searching among regular folk for certain particularities of dress and movement), set creation (for her videos), lighting, and some significant direction. What’s more, the awkward nature of her preferred tool—an unwieldy 4 x 5 camera that requires extensive setup and long exposures—results in the subjects often having to wait for prolonged periods to have their picture taken. That time, one imagines, is mostly spent fidgeting, adjusting hair and clothing, and ultimately faltering between a confident and an anxious self-image. As Dijkstra says about her highly constructed approach to naturalness, eventually “people become aware of the fact that they’re posing and fall back on their own resources”—in time, they drop their guard. By then, Dijkstra has already taken their measure, having empathetically sized up how they want (and alternately, definitely don’t want) to be perceived.
Take the artist’s Beach Portraits, which she made in various locations around the world between 1992 and 2002. The first series of photographs to follow Dijkstra’s poolside self-portrait, these pictures pose a variety of adolescents in bathing suits in front of sand, blue skies, and sharp horizon lines to dramatic effect. The resulting images magnify every gesture, nuance, and detail. One such photograph features a pair of whippet-thin Polish boys in plain white slips confronting the camera just as they are—namely, as children uncorrupted by the idealizations of Western-style media (the photograph was taken only three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall). By contrast, a photo of an American girl in makeup, jewelry, and an orange Victoria’s Secret bikini possesses no shortage of hand-me-down glamour and insecurity. If her body suggests serene classical statuary, the busy footprints around her tell a different tale—this poor preteen tried on plenty of poses.
A second emblematic series of pictures at the Guggenheim centers on a single subject, Almerisa, a young Bosnian war refugee whom Dijkstra has photographed since 1994. A conceit the artist has also developed with Olivier, a young man who spent a half-decade in the French Foreign Legion, as well as several young Israeli Army conscripts, Dijkstra’s documentary strategy allows her to capture her subjects before, during, and after important personal events. In the case of Almerisa’s serial portrait, for instance, we see a little girl advance from refugee-center uncertainty through timid childhood, primping adolescence, and eventually into sunny motherhood. Throughout the 11 pictures, one thing stays constant: the chair. Besides the final Pietà image of Almerisa seated with her sleeping toddler on her lap, no single photograph is quite so moving as the one where her feet finally reach the floor.
Dijkstra’s move into video becomes yet another way in which this artist accesses psyches that would otherwise be closed to perfect strangers in a museum. Adolescents, once again, play a key role. One such teen, Annemiek, is the subject of Dijkstra’s first video portrait (1997). A simple fixed-camera take on an impressionable young blonde lip-syncing the words to the Backstreet Boys’ “I Wanna Be With You,” this work gradually develops into a touching study in transport and self-consciousness. (It’s tough if strangely memorable to watch her squirm during the instrumental parts.) Similar unmaskings accompany Dijkstra’s most recent work on view, The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool, UK (2009). The four-channel installation features clubgoers dancing to their favorite tracks inside a studio the artist constructed, its four separate portraits frankly exposing what this singular artist has always been after: a deliberately honest, nonjudgmental glimpse inside people’s outer shell. This superb, enlightening, and compassionate exhibition is chock-full of them.