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Rineka Dijkstra, Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, USA, June 24, 1992, c-print


Jade Doskow

Saying the Most With What is Left Unsaid


Sometimes it is the small details which shed light on greater truths;  such is the case in the portraits of Rineke Dijkstra. Her isolated depictions of adolescent teens on beaches, videos of young clubbers, and portraits of young mothers who have recently given birth, provide for a cross section both socio-economically and psychologically through attention to specifics.


In Dijkstra’s beach portraits, adolescents are posing awkwardly in only their bathing suits. No referential details are visible in the background; the beaches are free of any garbage, seaweed, or structures. There are no clues as to the locales of these portraits. Upon closer investigation, however, much is made apparent as to the class and culture of these children, according to variances in attire, gesture, and general attitude.


In hilton head island, south carolina, usa, june 24, 1992, a chubby blonde teenager poses self-consciously, one hand holding her long, streaky blonde tresses in place, the other awkwardly dangling across a thigh. In an interview concerning this portrait, Dijkstra says “The Americans had very fancy bathing costumes and the poses were more self-conscious. One girl was really holding her belly in and her mother was behind her yelling ‘You’re too fat.’” The girl’s chubbiness and obvious discomfort with her body is American, in a sense;  in the European portraits, the girls are gangly and toothpick-thin. Being overweight is simply not an issue. 


A thin girl in an outdated lime green bathing suit gazes calmly at the viewer. A few tresses of brown hair flutter in the breeze. She is a contemporary Venus, stepping forth from an invisible clam shell. Unlike her voluptuous American counterpart, this girl’s hipbones protrude, her limbs long and slender. While her figure is awkward in that it has not yet matured, it is beautiful in its awkwardness. kolobrzeg, poland, july 26, 1992, is serene and captivating in its starkness and complexity of age. This young woman conveys a completely different world-view than that of hilton head island.


hilton head island, june 22, 1992 provides for yet another glimpse into American adolescence and culture. Two teenage boys squint arrogantly, their hair long and unruly. These boys want their presence to be known. Their stance indicates nothing less than trying to take up as much space as possible, elbows and shoulders up and out, creating mass where there is none. They have just discovered their manliness and want to share it with the world. Cocky, self-assured, they are the antitheses of their female American counterparts. Despite their attitudes, they still convey the discomfort of adolescence; while they have leg hair, their chests and chins are bare, arms spindly. For bathing suits they wear long, baggy, stylish shorts.


kolobrzeg, poland, july 27, 1992 has no such airs. These two young boys wear their “tightie whities” to the beach. While substantially younger than the pair from hilton head, they convey a sense more of youthful curiosity than willful manliness. The taller of the two boys stares directly and somewhat suspiciously at the viewer; the smaller boy seems amusedly perplexed by the whole situation. While the boys are not obviously Polish, it seems unlikely that two young boys would be found on the beach in America in only their underwear. 

Rineke Dijkstra, Tia, Amsterdam, Netherlands, June 23, 1994, C-print

Similarly, Dijkstra’s video installation Buzzclub/Mysteryworld examines teenagers in an aesthetically barren context. A split screen compares and contrasts two clubbers at a time, staring sluggishly or dancing awkwardly against a plain white studio backdrop. The 26-minute piece is so intimate, so awkward, that it is easy to imagine being a 16-year-old clubber, trying very hard to present a sophisticated appearance, and ultimately looking like a young clubber trying to looking sophisticated. Like Warhol’s Screen Tests, self-consciousness plays a big role in Buzzclub/Mysteryworld; the relationship between photographer and subject is at such an odd angle between objective and subjective that the resulting outward appearance, like the “Beach” series, is deceptively simple; once again, it is what the subject is subconsciously trying to hide which is revealing. There is also a sense of timelessness and escape, partly because of the neutral white background, partly because of the knowledge that this is inside a nightclub, a scene where young people go to escape and indulge in “rapture” and “ecstasy.”


Dijkstra’s “New Mothers” series is yet another Minimalistic look at a group of people in a heavy psychological state, in this case, within a few weeks of having given birth.  In julie, a young woman stands against a plain white hallway, her tiny baby clutched protectively against her chest. She is wearing only a pair of hospital underwear. The expression on her face is indescribable, a profound mixture of awe, joy, and love. The small details are intensely descriptive in this series; in tecia, a rivulet of blood runs down the woman’s inner leg and her abdomen is still fairly swollen. Two photographs of tia—taken three weeks after having given birth and several months later—show intense changes in her physical appearance, yet not much concretely has changed. In the earlier photograph, the weariness in Tia’s eyes is indescribable;  in the second, it’s as if a veil has been lifted away from her face. There is, perhaps, no better way to document this kind of life experience than how Dijkstra has chosen to represent it.


The portraits of Rineke Dijkstra serve nothing less than as a testament to humanity, proof of the timelessness of human nature and psyche. While the people depicted could not be from any time but the present, the complex situations they represent—sociologically, mentally, and spiritually—are eternal. Dijkstra’s work has to do with how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us; how we show more with what we hide than with what we freely offer. Her portraits offer moments of extreme humanity; behind the seemingly barren images are a thousand levels of emotional and spiritual truths. 


Jade Doskow

Brooklyn, New York




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