PRINT May 1997


HALF A MILLENIUM AFTER Botticelli painted Venus as the central figure in the mysterious parable of Primavera, Rineke Dijkstra brings the figure back for a solo turn in the form of Polish adolescent on the beach of Kolobrzeg. Dijkstra’s Venus has the lock and slouch of a Renaissance beauty, to be sure but she is also the picture of a wary, awkward late-twentieth-century teenager—half wet, half exposed, half accessible, half grown. Like Botticelli’s other masterwork Birth of Venus, she rises up from the alabaster zone between the ocean and earth, becoming the 90’s cipher of individual evolution.

If this Polish Venus seems to have arms and legs that are too long, she is no different from the other puberty-stricken boys and girls whom Dijkstra has photographed on beaches in Europe and the United States since 1992. What is apparent on viewing any collection of these portraits is how similar her subjects seem: caught on the edge of land and sea, in limp bathing suits that evoke adult dreams, stilled by the blunt formality of the camera and the sudden catharsis of the flash, they serve as icons of an aspiration that we who are already adults have long forgotten.

Dijkstra’s pictures cut across the work of Sally Mann, Thomas Ruff, and Jock Sturges in an odd and unexpectedly affecting way. Under ordinary circumstances one would be embarrassed to mention these three photographers in a single sentence, since they ply such different tributaries of portraiture. Ruff comes from the Becher school of the hard stare; Mann is a romantic in a southern, To Kill a Mockingbird vein; Sturges specializes in portraits of nude teenage girls that are guaranteed to engorge the adult heterosexual male. But Dijkstra takes the child-as-adult themes of Mann and Sturges and palliates them with the objective gaze and large scale Ruff used in his portraits of his art-student classmates.

The artist locates herself and her motives in the hero of an earlier generation, Diane Arbus. For the catalogue to the Frankfurter Kunstverein’s 1996 installment of its “Prospect” series, she wrote: “For me it is essential to understand that everyone is alone. Not in the sense of loneliness, but rather in the sense that no one can completely understand someone else. I know very well what Diane Arbus means when she says that one cannot crawl into someone else’s skin, but there is always an urge to do so anyway. I want to awaken definite sympathies for the person I have photographed.” Dijkstra’s appearance in the 1996 “Prospect” show was a highlight of a year in which her work was widely shown throughout Europe. Born in Holland and a resident of Amsterdam, she had previously exhibited primarily in the Netherlands. Now she has shows in Germany, France, and Switzerland under her belt, and a catalogue of her beach pictures, Beaches, was recently published by Codax in Zurich.

As much as Dijkstra’s pictures refer to individuals and their unique trials of adolescence, however, they also constitute a convincing catalogue of a passage that appears to transcend geography and culture. Much as the German art students in Ruff’s series of frontal head shots could be art students anywhere, Dijkstra’s girls and boys are not typecast by their national identity. The portraits of groups of twos and threes further complicate this meditation on the nature/nurture question, since the families and friends resemble each other within the frame just as they resemble each other between frames.

Fashion plays only a small role. The American girls on Hilton Head have more up-to-date bikinis than their Croatian counterparts, and the Poles seem to favor suits that resemble underwear. But on the whole, Dijkstra does not let the viewer use signifiers of style to typecast her subjects. This is true not only of her beach pictures but also of her portraits taken in the studio.

Dijkstra’s other work, which she pursues alongside her beach portraits, sometimes literally strips away clothing as a means of identification. One series focuses on postpartum women and their newborns, the mothers portrayed naked, standing against a white wall and presenting themselves and their offspring simultaneously. The infants are undifferentiated and in that sense anonymous, but the women stare out at the viewer with a penetrating gaze, creating a neutral territory between seeing and being seen that allows them the privilege of their own identity. In doubling the notion of presentation in these pictures, however, Dijkstra gives her subjects the aura of specimens: the child is the specimen of its mother’s sexual maturity, and the woman is a specimen of the very adulthood to which the adolescents in the beach pictures aspire.

Unlike Arbus, Dijkstra does not rely on her flash lighting to render her subjects slightly surreal, and her camera is not an instrument of intrusion. The flat, frontal style she has adopted from her German contemporaries is respectful of the strangers she encounters and asks to pose; it allows them to gather themselves to the task of projecting their half-formed selves against the tides of time and culture. That they can be only partly successful at achieving an image unto themselves, free of the associations of art history and the viewer’s own memories of adolescence, makes them all the more poignant.

Andy Grundberg