Critics’ Picks

Rineke Dijkstra, The Buzzclub, Liverpool, England, March 3, 1995, color photograph, 18 7/8 x 13 3/4".

San Francisco

Rineke Dijkstra

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA)
151 Third Street
February 18–May 28, 2012

The sociological output of Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra appears simple enough on the surface. Yet, as this retrospective emphasizes, her enigmatic work is continually strengthened by what it eloquently conceals. Since the early 1990s, Dijkstra’s subjects have been mostly young, “ordinary” people from around the world, whom she captures in the middle of a transition of some sort—joining the military, or having a baby, or merely changing from childhood into adulthood. While the casual poses and environments in which Dijkstra captures her subjects evince their everyday realities, there is nonetheless an austerity to the figures as they are fixed within her neutral frame. This tension that the portraits craft between the natural and the composed subject is exaggerated in some of her most celebrated images, namely her series of adolescents on beaches. The unaffected approachability of Dijkstra’s subjects renders them at once common and stoic, which also explains why these works in particular have so often been compared to the portraiture of Dutch Masters such as Rembrandt and Vermeer.

The ample supply of pieces on view in this show make it clear that Dijkstra’s exclusion of personal, bespoke backgrounds and her focus on physical traits imbues these portraits with both an immense human fragility and an air of restraint. This duality is perhaps best summed up in a wall label adjacent to two images taken in 1995 at a nightclub in Liverpool, which describes her subjects as, “perform[ing] for her camera and for themselves.” It is precisely Dijkstra’s key ability to parse the overlap between one’s performance for others and one’s performance for oneself that heightens the intriguing discord that lies beneath her simple surfaces.