As one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century August Sander (here), has inspired a diverse group of practitioners across several generations including Diane Arbus, Andreas Gursky, the Bechers and Irving Penn but perhaps his work’s most direct descendant is a conceptual artist, Hans Eijkelboom, who, over a twenty two year period, has created a comprehensive record of one aspect of society. Like Sander Eijkelboom believes that clothes describe an aspect of society but whereas Sander saw them as being diagnostic of class and profession Eijkelboom sees them as a symbol of consumerism and the loss of individuality.
His locations are the shopping districts of large cities around the world where he takes candid photographs of people in a common item of clothing. The subject matter is disparate ranging from women’s white raincoats in Stockholm to stripped tee-shirts in Amsterdam or people carrying the same shopping bag in Paris. Typically he works in a single location for one to two hours then presents his images in a grid as a typology.
The series has been published in a single book, People of the Twenty First Century (1), and as it runs to 6,000 images it is potentially overwhelming. In an interview for the publisher (2) Eijkelbloom explains that he started out exploring his own identity realising that, like pretty well everyone else, he naively buys clothes as a statement of identity without thinking of the 10,000 other people who are wearing exactly the same garment. He calls this the “fallacy of modern individualism”.
Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century is an clear reference but the approach of these two men could hardly be more different. Even when not working in his studio Sander took the same techniques on location, he interrelates with his subject, they are posed, often dressed for the sitting, there is a portrait studio formality and rigidity to his work, his subjects gestures and expressions are conscious, the subject and Sander play a part in manipulating the portrait, what Barthes would call transforming the subject into an image (i), but despite this unnatural environment and unknowingly acting as representatives of Sander’s types they remain individuals.
This contrasts with Eijkelbloom’s collection: he uses his camera mounted on a support that allows it to hang flat against his chest whilst hiding a remote release in his pocket, each photograph is candid, he has no interaction with his subjects and by presenting them in typographical grids of matching outfits or actions he emphasises their lack of individuality. It would be possible to leave it there, to turn the pages seeing conformity and herd behaviour but if we pause on any given page and look at the subjects the herd breaks down into nine or a dozen individuals trapped inside a culturally imposed uniform.
At a superficial level there are other street photographers collecting series of people to form typologies; Brandon Stanton’s Humans of New York (4) and Scott Schuman’s The Satorialist (5) are obvious examples. Eijkelboom points out the fundamental difference; Stanton and Schuman seek out the exceptional and the individual whereas Eijkelbloom is capturing the unexceptional and the crowd. Stanton in particular invests himself in the aesthetic of his images, they are carefully composed and lit and like Sander his subjects are conscious participants whereas Eijkelbloom, without even looking through the viewfinder, is simply using the camera as a tool to collect data for his project . Another difference is the lack of background; he crops tight to his subject so they could be in any shopping street in any large city, perhaps part of the statement he is making.
Like Sander Eijkelbloom is an anthropologist but by presenting his findings in a grid he takes his comparisons of similarities and differences a step further and references the entomological nature of the Becher’s work. There is something dehumanising in the way his subjects are grouped by such a superficial and, what should be, an irrelevant characteristic.
Sander and Eijkelbloom set out on their great projects to make quite different statements. Sander was documenting the types within a society, categorising his subjects by class and profession whereas Eijkelbloom shows how, even in a single location and across a short period of time, people conform to dress codes to such a degree that their individual identities are subsumed by a fashion or cultural trend. Both men provide a comprehensive document of their time but Sander’s is the more compelling; however much he tried to use people as general examples of his categories, he presents individual characters who, even seventy or a hundred years later, leave the viewer wondering. Why doesn’t the storm trooper with his round bank manager’s glasses look more evil? Where were the three young farmers going in their smart new suits? Try as I might I don’t find Eijkelbloom’s subjects very intriguing, the sets are interesting, even though his point is made long before we reach page 500, but the context of any given subject is so dominated by the other eight or eleven subjects in the set there is no room to see them as individuals, they are just exhibits.
Notes on Text
(i) Roland Barthes talks about posing in Camera Lucida (3); “Now once I feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes: I constitute myself in the process of “posing,” I instantaneously make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.”
(1) Eijkelboom, Hans (2014) People of the Twenty First Century. London: Phaidon
(3) Barthes, Roland. (1980) Camera Lucida. London: Vintage Books
(4) Stanton, Brandon ( 2013) Humans of New York. New York: St. Martin’s Press
(2) Eijkelboom, Hans (2014) Ten Questions for Photographer Hans Eijkelboom (accessed at Phaidon 24.12.15) – http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/photography/articles/2014/october/02/ten-questions-for-photographer-hans-eijkelboom/
(5) Schuman, Scott. The Satorialist (accessed at The Satorialist 24.12.15) – http://www.thesartorialist.com