At the Guggenheim, Rineke Dijkstra's Portraits Dive Into the Deep Waters of Human Vulnerability

Installation view of "Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective," at the Guggenheim
(Photo: David Heald © Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation)

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra is perhaps best known for her breakthrough “Bathers” series, a collection of large-scale, full-length portraits of teenagers standing on beaches all over the world, poised on the precise line between surf and land. Displayed in solemn rows on the first floor of Dijkstra’s current Guggenheim retrospective, the classic photographs prove themselves worthy of their star status. The teenagers’ bodies are eloquent expressions of their emotional states, some attenuated and unsure like Mannerist Madonnas, others stock-solid and mountainous. They are all overwhelmingly larger than life, as sensitive and empathy-inspiring as the lanky Adam and Eve of Jan van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece.

Rarer than the images is the story behind the exposed vulnerability of Dijkstra’s young bathers. While working as an editorial photographer on assignment, the artist got into a serious accident. Doctors warned her that if she didn’t exercise extensively she might lose the use of her legs, and so she took to swimming. One day after climbing exhausted out of the pool, she noticed that her eyes were rimmed with red, as if she had been crying. Dijkstra decided to turn that moment into a self-portrait, and the resulting image hangs on the Guggenheim’s gallery wall. A predecessor to her own Bathers, Dijkstra is seen standing against a geometric tiled wall, eyes staring straight ahead at the viewer, worn out yet ferociously self-possessed.

It was then that the photographer realized the power of shooting her subjects in moments of distress or suspension, times when the wall between the individual and society comes down and the soul is bared. The strategy pays off viscerally in Dijkstra’s series of portraits of new mothers shot just after birth. The women stand in the hallways of their homes (where Dutch women often give birth) cradling their newborns, faces communicating a captivating mix of shock and bemused joy. (One has a trickle of blood running down her leg — no one ever said soul baring would be clean). Across the first-floor gallery, young men grin wildly, collars tattered and skin scratched. They just completed the Spanish running of the bulls. 

Dijkstra’s passion for the human character is also on display in her longer term documentary projects, for which she has followed a soldier through the French foreign legion and a Bosnian refugee settling in Amsterdam over years of their respective lives. Still, the upper floors of the exhibition have a difficult time matching up to the pictographic clarity of the knockout first space, however. That is, until viewers are treated to Dijkstra’s recent video work.

A veteran of dance clubs, the photographer decided to take on the habitués of two Liverpool discotheques, the Krazyhouse and the Buzz Club. The resulting videos, in particular “The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee)” (2009), follow up on the intimate exposure of the earlier bathers. The four-channel piece shows four teenagers shot individually, each dancing against a white backdrop, the pounding music of the club filtering in through a wall. The dancing, removed from the context of a sweaty crowd and packed basement, is hypnotizing — the teenagers are at turns shy, pausing to smoke a cigarette or grin bashfully at Dijkstra’s camera, and lost in the moment, dancing without any regard for who might be watching.

We, of course, are the voyeurs caught spying on their moments of grace. Yet Dijkstra’s accomplishment is that she doesn’t sexualize, idealize, or exoticize what she captures. We don’t so much desire the subjects of the videos, who are normal-looking kids dressed up in ostentatious club gear or just jeans and a t-shirt, as desire to be them and take their place on the screen, to let ourselves similarly go. Dijkstra’s portraits, capturing as they do moments when the self is raw and open to the world, inspire a vertiginous desire to emulate and break down our own walls.

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” runs at the Guggenheim museum through October 8. Click on the slide show for a tour of the exhibition.