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Rineke Dijkstra makes photographs and sometimes videos of people who are brave. Sometimes they’re adolescents, sometimes soldiers, sometimes bullfighters.

The brave person we see here is called Julie. She’s in The Hague, the year is 1994, and she has just done the bravest thing human beings do that’s somehow considered routine. She has given birth.

There’s a surprising silence around the raw substance of this subject, perhaps because it’s so elemental. Every one of us came into the world from a woman’s uterus, as the midwives like to point out. But that doesn’t mean that the process is safe, or routine, or uncomplicated.

Blood pressure rises dangerously. Umbilical cords get wrapped around necks. Babies flip into breech position, twins … (twins!!). There are a hundred things that can go wrong. Or go right, but only after tremendous, sometimes life-threatening difficulty. And of course, all this comes after months of stunning changes to the mother’s body and her entire attitude to life.

This photograph is one of a series Dijkstra made of women in the immediate aftermath of giving birth. The labor may be over. But something about the baby’s dramatically splayed limbs and Julie’s awkward, still-getting-used-to-it hold trembles with the muscle memory of the recent emergency.

For that is what it is: an emergency, with its own altered, adrenaline-affected sense of time; its hormonal (and possibly drug-induced) distortions of perception; and, of course, its stamp of uniqueness. No two births are the same.

Working in a tradition pioneered earlier in the 20th century by the German photographer August Sander, Dijkstra approaches her subjects with deliberate neutrality. She uses a large-format camera, which produces big negatives. In the resulting large-scale prints (almost four feet high), her human subjects are almost entirely in focus, while the background — often blank walls, sometimes oceans and skies — is neutral and less in focus.

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Dijkstra’s approach endows her subjects with tremendous presence. She has said she was drawn to the idea of making post-birth portraits after she saw a friend giving birth. She wanted to know if she could use her approach to capture all the emotions she saw — pride, exhaustion, happiness, relief. In surprising ways, I think she has.

Her female subjects are presented with a frankness that can be very confronting but is also exceptionally beautiful. Exceptional, because Dijkstra’s photographs are always reminding us of the fragile and unknowable nature of the person they show — and by extension, of all the things that are inimitable and unknowable about you and me and everyone else, too.

A person might fit into a “type,” in other words. He might wear a military uniform. She might dance with hundreds of others at an all-night party. She might give birth like billions of others before her. But her circumstances, her dreams, her inner life, what we might call her quiddity, cannot and will not be found anywhere else.

So look again at this acutely vulnerable young woman. (The photograph is currently in a traveling show in England called “Acts of Creation: On Art and Motherhood.”) She has gone through something profound and difficult and is now a “mother.” We will call her that and the word will summon certain ideas and expectations. Her life will certainly change, regardless of words.

But she still has her own specific quiddity. She has girlfriends and parents. She has favorite songs, favorite books, favorite TV shows. She was probably out dancing with friends not long ago. She once got a tattoo on her thigh. Certain events — a good teacher, a trip overseas, a long relationship with a musical instrument, perhaps a charismatic aunt — may have changed her outlook on things.

A great deal more has now been added to her life. I mean, just look at that raw, blotchy little being with its own gorgeous quiddity pressed against her chest!

But when I look at this picture, I find myself hoping that nothing of who she was before will be taken from her simply because she is a mother.



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