Provocative portraits of awkward adolescence 

Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra bravely looks at the muddy waters of adolescence. Her riveting portraits offer viewers a chance to examine — from a safe distance — the complicated and awkward process of growing up.

“Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” is at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art through May 28. Organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, the exhibition features nearly 70 color photographs and five video installations.

Dijkstra captures the physical and emotional shifts that occur when people go through major transitions, such as motherhood or joining the military. Working with a 4-by-5-inch view camera set on a tripod, she makes powerful, life-size photographs that reveal far more than the subject might wish.

The exhibition opens with Dijkstra’s “Beach Portraits.” Shot over a 10-year period, the photographs offer a fascinating look at the body language of teenagers.

In one portrait, a blonde in an orange bikini tries to pose glamorously on a South Carolina beach; in another, a Polish girl in a modest green bathing suit stands awkwardly in front of the sea.

“The emotions of younger people seem to be very much on the surface,” Dijkstra says in an interview in the exhibition catalog. “They have no defined image of themselves yet. In these shy, subdued characters, I recognize some part of myself.”

Dijkstra is a master at catching what a person communicates before there is time for composure. She photographs bullfighters the moment they leave the ring (and before they can straighten their ties). The smear of blood on their collars and the rips in their brocade jackets underscore the exhaustion, pain and relief in their eyes. It’s a potent mix.

Other highlights include portraits of Israeli teenagers taken before and after military service. Her photographs of teenagers relaxing in parks in Liverpool, England; Berlin; and other cities have a fairy tale quality about them, with rich green foliage offering a soothing backdrop to the complexities of youth.

Dijkstra’s longest-running series focuses on a woman named Almerisa. The first portrait shows her as a 5-year-old refugee, just after her family fled Bosnia. In the last picture, she is a mother holding her own child.

The exhibition also includes video installations such as “The Buzz Club,” made at a Liverpool nightclub. It might be painful to witness the self-consciousness of the young clubgoers, but Dijkstra’s decision to film them facing the camera, against a plain white background, deepens the experience.

If you’re the parent of a teen, this is an exhibition worth seeing together. You’ll have plenty to talk about.

The exhibition will also be at the Guggenheim in New York City from June to October.

IF YOU GO

Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective

Where: Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., San Francisco

When: 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily, except closed Wednesdays and open until 8:45 p.m. Thursdays; through May 28

Cost: $11 to $18; free for children 12 and under and half-price after 6 p.m. Thursdays

Contact: (415) 357-4000, www.sfmoma.org

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Cathy Bowman

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