These famous “bather” photos by the Dutch artist Rineke Dijkstra, now on view in her retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, are often talked about as straight documents of their subjects. What’s rarely commented on is their brilliant artifice. Dijkstra’s lens views these figures from the level of their navel or thighs, thanks to a view-camera trick normally used by fashion photographers (and Old Master portrait painters): It makes small figures seem tall, and lets them literally look down on their viewers. That’s where the oft-mentioned “hauteur” and “poise” of these figures comes from. The illumination on them is also manipulated: Dijkstra carefully balances fill-flash and natural light, to give the kind of relationship between landscape and body we’re used to seeing in Gainsborough and van Dyke. Dijkstra doesn’t just find grandeur in the humblest figures and adulthood lurking in teens. She doses her figures with power.
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