Photographic Proof That Almost No One’s Style Is Unique

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In 1994, Dutch photographer Ari Versluis and his collaborator Ellie Uyttenbroek were commissioned by a telecom company to document youth culture in the Netherlands. The resulting series, “Gabbers,” focused on the shaved-head, candy-colored-tracksuit-wearing techno fans who were suddenly all over the place. To highlight the striking visual similarity among members of the scene, Versluis and Uyttenbroek arranged 40 portraits of the Gabbers in a grid — pinpointing a cultural phenomenon that, according to Versluis, no one had been able to quite place. The series was a hit, and the pair have been using the same photographic formula to document the styles of various social groups ever since.

Now in its 21st year, Versluis and Uyttenbroek’s ongoing project, “Exactitudes,” features 154 different series, each documenting a different group's style. They’ve photographed everyone from fur-coat-wearing women in Milan to preschoolers in Beijing to, more recently, the “Farmcore” hipsters of Amsterdam. The full “Exactitudes” series is the subject of a new book of the same name, out this month, which includes 14 new, previously unpublished series. The Cut spoke with Versluis about his process, how the project has evolved since it first started, and the effect of the internet and globalization on youth subcultures.

How do you decide on an idea for a particular series?
You start by looking, basically. Just sit down on a bench and look. In the beginning, we worked out of a studio in the middle of Rotterdam, so we had a very long time to look at things. Later on, we started to explore cities abroad, and then you don’t have the enormous luxury of time. But what you do is set up camp. We stay in one place, which can be a shopping mall or a shopping street or a club. We just start looking and talking about it, trying to recognize patterns, and looking to see whether something is just a trend or whether it says something more interesting about identity and lifestyle.

The nice part of the work is the encounter. You force yourself to meet people and talk with people — and therefore you learn from them. You listen to their stories about their style, and about their behavior — so you are learning about the group from the people who are in it. Sometimes they’ll judge the people in the group you’ve already photographed. They’ll say, “Oh my God, that girl is totally fake,” and they can really pinpoint what is wrong.

We also start a lot of series that we can’t finish — either because of the time pressure that we have in a city or because we make a mistake and it turns out the series is not that interesting, or too trendy or boring.

Do you find that certain cities have more visually distinct social groups than others?
Yes, of course. That has a lot to with which cities are really changing. For instance, I was in Vienna this summer, and Vienna is still Vienna. But when you’re on the outskirts of Paris, that’s a completely different story. But besides that, a shocking conclusion for us after 20 years of taking pictures is that the world is rapidly becoming the same. In Europe, you can go to Copenhagen or Rome or Berlin or Madrid, and young people all look the same nowadays. There’s hardly any real subculture. Everything is driven by the internet. We’ve started concentrating more on old people for our series, because it’s very difficult to get a grip on the younger situation.

And that’s something that’s changed since you first started the project?
Absolutely. In the beginning, there was no internet. The first series of skaters we did in Rotterdam was special because they were wearing Tommy Hilfiger T-shirts and these other skate brands that, at the time, you had to go to the States to buy. We’d ask them, “Where did you get that Tommy Hilfiger?” and they’d say, “Oh, I was in New York.” To get black Levi’s in the '90s, you had to go to London. Nowadays you can get the shirt with one click, and that’s a big difference. Now even the Chinese youngsters shop online at Topshop.  And another thing is that now there’s so much presentation online. We’ve made three or four series just from Facebook, checking out profiles. Series 139, “Mwah!” for instance. The girls in the hot pants, jeans, and red lipstick. Just from looking at their Facebook, we could say, “Yes, she’s definitely this kind of girl, let’s invite her to the studio,” and it proved to be exactly right.

Do you try to avoid photographing trends?
Well, trends are easy, and sometimes we have to do them because we know it says something. For instance, we just made a series in Amsterdam that we call “Omen,” which is about a gothic sports style that is really hitting the streets right now. It’s sort of eclectic — it’s the matrix, it’s futuristic, and it’s very sporty. It was too big for us to say no.

When you do something like this for 20 years, you also see trends and logical progressions in your own oeuvre. In this part of Europe, in the beginning, groups were very monoracial — and now you see that youngsters are mixing it up more. That makes a series like “Omen” very interesting, because that wasn’t really the case 15 years ago, when it was impossible to find hip, cool groups that were so diverse.

How do you decide how to pose your subjects?
We always start with an icon: a person who [exemplifies the group] for us. I just start taking pictures in the studio, and then Ellie and I will look at them — and there’s always a moment where a person falls into his position, like, okay, this is my thing. Sometimes you have to direct them a bit, but mostly it comes naturally. A bouncer is always with his hands in front of his crotch, for instance — you can’t change that.

What kinds of questions do you ask the people that you photograph?
It’s always about style: what they wear, where they buy it, what they try to say with their look. Some people can really explain why they’re doing it; some people just do it. We learn a lot from the guys and girls who can explain it.

Do you find that most people think of their style as unique, or are they conscious that the way they dress aligns them with a group?
Most people assume that their style is more outspoken — they think that they’re individual. But really, the more outspoken you are, the easier you are to catch in a group like “Exactitudes.” But a lot of the people we shoot who we think are interesting are just very normal people — and they don’t understand at all why we want to photograph them. The first question is always, “Why me?” And we tell them, “We really like the way you are dressed, and you wear it well.” Because that’s an important thing. Some people really know how to wear certain things.

In an interview with the BBC, you said that the majority of people don’t fit into an exactitude at all. Why not?
Because a lot of people are not that clear in their choices about what they’re wearing. Most people just go to a shop and they buy a coat because it’s cold. If you want to be a hipster in Brooklyn, you are very aware of what you are doing, and very aware of the signals you are giving to others. But a lot of people are not aware of the signals.

Are there other places where you’d like to continue the series?
There are a lot, for sure. But we have noticed that we are quite European. There’s still so much going on in our own vicinity. And, of course, we could travel to Argentina or Brazil — but do we really know enough of that culture to be very sure of what we’re doing, or to make something interesting? We could go to America, but it would probably take up at least five years to make something really important.

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