Laid Bare: Girls in Dijkstra's Beach Portraits

 A tribute to the alienation of adolescence
The photographer, Rineke Dijkstra

On paper, dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra is a traditional portrait photographer -she is known for shooting her subjects straight on and squaring in on every frontal feature of her chosen bodies to an almost clinical end, but take a look at her resulting large format prints and you will see that her careful portraits are far from conventional.
Dijkstra has a real eye for capturing subtle glimpses of humanity in her figures; her work reads more like a comprehensive psychological study of her subjects than a mere visual record of their bodies. Her photos are the kind of images that invite you to linger on the personal narrative of each subject and to think about how their physical presence informs us as to who they are, as opposed to merely how they look. As something of a people watcher, this is something that appeals to my inquisitive nature, and Dijkstra's figures are full of quirks for me to dissect.

This is to no exception when it comes to her most prolific series Beach Portraits, which she completed in the early 1990s and is my favourite of her photographic sets. The collection examines the confusing and often isolating space between being a child and becoming an adult; adolescence. Like many of Dijkstra's works, Beach Portraits is a series that focuses on people in transition by the way of powerful (and usually single) full length portraits, and these images of teenagers on various beaches across the globe lay bare both the physical and emotional changes the subjects are going through.

Dijkstra's beach dwellers seem poised on the edge of new beginnings and somewhat predictably Britney Spears' Not A Girl, Not Yet a Woman is on a constant loop in my head whenever I'm looking at them. To me, she has captured the adolescent condition writ large through these eloquent portraits; the feelings of fragility, the painful self-awareness and apparent alienation from both childhood and adulthood are written into the expressions and body language of Dijkstra's teens so truthfully that they remind me of my own self-conscious teenage years. For this reason I find myself drawn to the images of young women in particular.

These are two of my favourite images in the series: 
Kolobrzeg, Poland, July 26, 1992 (Left) and Hilton Head Island, S.C., USA, June 24, 1992 (Right). 

These photographs have a classical quality to them, perhaps because both girls seem to be holding a loose 'venus pudica' pose like that adopted in Botticelli's The Birth of Venus, and this communicates a sense of femininity and (without getting too Humbert Humbert on you) latent sexuality. I find this hint at impending womanhood to be endearing as I empathise with the awkwardness the girls seem to be displaying in reaction to both Dijkstra's lens and to their own  adolescent bodies as hands awkwardly rest on the thigh and Hilton Head stiffly clutches her windswept hair.

Though both girls look of a similar age, aesthetically they have decided to present themslves in converse manners, Kolobrzeg barefaced, hair off of her face and in a modest swimsuit and Hilton Head in a full face of make up, long flowing hair and a comparatively more grown up bathing suit - by showcasing both 'reactions' if you will, to adolescence Dijkstra validates both experiences without seeming to make any preachy social commentary on how the girls choose to outwardly project themselves. This attitude of acceptance on Dijkstra's part makes for a refreshingly pro-woman outlook that I relish in a genre often fraught with the male gaze. The deliberate sense of indifference conveyed by the photographer I believe is emphasised further by the uniform backdrop of the sea, which remains a constant no matter which country Dijkstra is shooting in and therefore acts as a kind of unifying force throughout the series, rendering the teens that are showcased as being connected on some level even though they choose to present themselves in starkly different guises.

Dijkstra's are truly a joy to behold and create a sense of warm nostalgia for my teenage years while reminding me how delicate those years were. Here are some more of my favourite images from the series:

Illustration by Tamara-Jade Kaz