Dutch portrait photographer Rineke Dijkstra’s most beautiful and compelling images are of adolescents standing alone on the beach in bathing suits, facing the camera before a colorful, lush backdrop of ocean and sky.
Not yet comfortable in their developing bodies, and flash-lit, as if suddenly exposed, they wear the expressions of children trying to be adults.
Hair blowing in the wind and not sure what to do with their hands -- to cover up or pose -- they suggest the awkward yet erotic new life of Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus.”
A grouping of these early portraits is at the heart of the Guggenheim Museum’s “Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective.”
The show spans two decades and includes multichannel videos of children voicing their thoughts about a Picasso painting of a woman weeping; and of adolescents dancing alone, lip-synching, smoking and playing air guitar in front of white backdrops.
There are portraits of children in parks, nude mothers with their newborns and of bullfighters, bloodied and disheveled, who have just left the ring.
Two strong series shot over years depict a soldier (Oliver) growing up (physically and emotionally) in the French Foreign Legion and a Bosnian girl (Almerisa), who changes from shy child to sullen teenager to new mother, as if in a flipbook.
Dijkstra, born in 1959, is empathetic with her subjects, who are allowed to be themselves. Yet with so many of her stock, stark portraits together, the images risk being types.
I wonder if they succeed more because of what we bring to them (nostalgia for lost youth, attempts to see what is hidden behind a soldier’s, a bullfighter’s or a child’s eyes) than for how individual and penetrating they are as portraiture.
“Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” is running through Oct. 8 at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave. Information: +1-212-423-3500; http://www.guggenheim.org.
In 2001, Zoe Strauss, born in 1970, became a photographer, focusing a lens on her native, rugged, sometimes destitute neighborhood in South Philadelphia.
Although she didn’t have a camera and was untrained as an artist, she conceived a 10-year documentary project, “I-95.”
It consisted of increasingly popular, annual installations of her color photographs, which were mounted for only three hours each May on the support pillars under an elevated, South-Philly section of route I-95.
Photocopies were for sale at $5 apiece, and an evolving slideshow of the now-completed “I-95 Project” emerged.
The most recent incarnation, comprising some 230 images, each on an 8-second delay, was the core of a strong solo exhibition of Strauss’s work this spring at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and is now at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery.
Also at Silverstein is a section of other people’s photographs of the annual installations. Yet only one of Strauss’s printed stills is on view: a gorgeous, ghostly, blue-and-white image of a crystal chandelier, seemingly submerged among clouds reflected in a window.
That’s unfortunate because her best photographs need more than eight seconds for their subtle combinations of humor, candor and formal structure to achieve their gestalts.
Strauss’s subjects bare emotions, loves, scars, drug habits, talents and tattoos. She orchestrates her images (up-close portraits, interiors, landscapes, urban storefronts, parking lots and signs), so that they gain momentum and relate in sequence.
She has a brilliant eye for geometry, people and words and for how advertising, homemade signage and graffiti express the sentiments of their surroundings. But her slideshow could benefit if cut by one-third.
Still, “I-95,” intimate, frank and exposed like a wound, is an insider’s portrait of a people and a place.
“Zoe Strauss: 10 Years, A Slideshow” is running through Aug. 3 at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery, 535 W. 24th St. Prices for the photographs range from $1,000 to $3,000. Information: +1-212-627-3930; http://www.brucesilverstein.com.
(Lance Esplund is U.S. art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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