It’s said that great documentary photography has its roots in two things: access, and time. And with 23 years devoted to a single project, Dutch conceptual artist and street photographer Hans Eijkelboom falls pretty solidly in the time camp. That project — series of similar, candid street portraits set in grids — continues, but you can see a solid two decades’ worth of work in Eijkelboom’s book People of the Twenty-First Century.
Like any street photographer, the access part is pretty simple — Eijkelboom finds a busy urban street corner (host cities include Amsterdam, New York, Paris, and Shanghai), then does his thing. His thing? Spotting a common visual thread within a crowd, then capturing and highlighting it.
Each session lasts a maximum of two hours to maintain the integrity of the concept, which is that there is an unconscious conformity going on among us, a sort of tribalism. If he didn’t limit his shooting location and window for a given session, Eijkelboom argues, he’d be merely cherry picking images of people to suit himself, instead of exposing existing patterns that anyone else could see if they thought to look.
“The inspiration was identity and society. When I started the project, I wondered whether I was a product of the consumer society, rather than my own man. I wanted to make the series almost as a mirror, in which to see myself. If I can see the surrounding society, then I can see what makes me who I am. I think ‘how can you be so naïve to go to a shop, to buy clothes that sum up your personality, and not realise that, at the same time, 10,000 men and women around the world do and think the same things?’ But I do it too, of course. We’re told we’re individuals, and we buy these things, and we are a product of the culture that we live in.”
Eijkelboom’s kind of work — Photographic Typology, or repetitive representations of a certain type of subject that exposes subtle differences and similarities — owes more than a little inspiration to the father of the genre, August Sander. Sander was a German portrait and documentary photographer who recorded the social types and classes within German society between the two World Wars. The power and sociological resonance of his work, published in the books People of the Twentieth Century (get it?) and Face of Our Time, lay in how the portraits related to each other, creating a meta-portrait of a society. If Eijkelboom today sees his work as a social mirror, the Nazis in Sander’s day may have felt the same, and not liked what they saw: they destroyed Sander’s photographic plates, and banned his book.
Eijkelboom’s focus on appearance and consumerism is more accessible (and let’s assume less threatening), but no less telling. Just look, and put in the time, he shows us, and the patterns in people are there for everyone to see.