When I began my thesis, I intended to create typologies, to examine how certain photographic practices – such as the selfie – could be defined in terms of their main features. What is the most common crop, for example, and what angles of head and camera were frequently used?
But when I started to assess these images in terms of how they fitted a model, I began to feel uneasy – was this not in some way a repressive practice, arguably acting on the subjects as much as on their image? To me, the typology is the quintessential instance of photography’s disciplinary nature, as it establishes categories, notes difference and similarity, and divides populations. Although such sorting and comparing is beautiful and poignant when applied to the cooling towers and blast furnaces of the Bechers, I felt that when applied to photographs of people, doing so would problematically undermine the individuality of those depicted.
The portrait typology series Exactitudes exemplifies this process of deliberately eliding difference. A joint project between photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek, Exactitudes started in 1994, with the name (a contraction of ‘exact’ and ‘attitude’) reflecting the intention to filter individual attitude through the photographer’s precise, exacting framework[i].
The typologies place similarly dressed subjects into a three by four framework. The result at first appears humorous, if a little cynical, exaggerating the similarities of those who might otherwise cherish their stylistic individuality. The process appears deeply anthropological, in that it captures the exotic, and makes it visible, and classifiable. The repetition of stylistic details is hypnotic, and fascinating, offering a glimpse into the codes and markers of other communities and subcultures. One observes in these images how limited the repertoire of individual expression ultimately seems to be. And in criticising this, and in entirely mistaking what the purposes are behind such codes, Exactitudes is deeply flawed.
Firstly, the approach is not to show the stylistic range of a certain subculture, it is to artificially reduce it through deliberate selection. The artists have a list of requirements for each look, and scout for people who fit their definition, rejecting those that are not similar enough. As a method, this is biased from the outset, and the work produced in this way cannot be regarded as representative of anything other than the artist’s preconceptions.
Secondly, the styling of the photographs deliberately maximises the similarities between the subjects, with uniform posing and facial expression, shot with identical lighting and background. Wim van Sinderen, Senior Curator at the Museum of Photography, The Hague, assesses their approach by likening it to “an almost scientific, anthropological record of people’s attempts to distinguish themselves from others by assuming a group identity”[ii]. This is unsettling for two reasons: one, it artificially minimises the differences between people and then highlights the lack of individuality in such “attempts” – placing the subjects in a no-win situation. Two, it bears an uncomfortable similarity to practices of anthropological classification, where the scientific gaze was used as a means to identify, sort and draw conclusions from the appearances of certain racial or class groups. Much like the practice of physiognomy, the approach taken in producing Exactitudes relies on the belief that ‘types’ can be discerned, and that a certain person can or should be fitted within such categories. Although these artists are not using these images as a means for directly subduing or repressing those depicted, this is a deliberate practice of ‘othering’ certain groups – achieved through drawing attention to the fact that they can be grouped. Furthermore, the artists’ far from neutral attitude can be discerned in their captions, with the right hand image being labelled ‘Bimbos’.
Thirdly, the artists make claims about their work that justify their approach, and play down the uniformity that they themselves impose. Speaking in The New Statesman, Versluis defends his work from criticism of “putting people into boxes” by claiming that the subjects “box themselves. I just register it in a very simple way”[iii]. His claim to register in a ‘simple’ way ignores the selection and styling process, instead emphasising the subject’s own enactment of similarity with others. Rather than embrace variety, these images speak of a need to control the breadth of styles, practices and ways of life into something that is classifiable. These images speak of a wish to have mastery over the incomprehensible mass and variety of humanity, finding patterns and repetitions not to underscore some sort of commonality, but rather to sabotage the notion of individuality by criticising it for not being total or individual enough. A stereotype that goes unchallenged, or that (like here) is actively created and celebrated, acts to reassure the viewer; firstly, by preventing the stranger in the street from being entirely unknowable, once we have fitted them into a category, and secondly by offering reassurance that it is other people who are alike, not you.
Fourthly, the critique of individuality – by placing it alongside uniformity – becomes problematically simplified in these images, as it is taken to extremes. The wider critique, however, is relevant. As Gil Blank of Influence magazine points out, it is important to overturn the automatic assumption that “photography plus the street equals authenticity”, particularly in an age where “the “cool hunt” [has become] a corporate pursuit”[iv]. This corporate valorising of the individual is of course by nature a cynical fallacy, with the means of production and distribution directly contradicting the message portrayed. Furthermore, the dividing line between individuality and conformity is at times very narrow, and it is socially useful to be able to show affinity with and distinction from one’s peers. As Paul Hodkinson notes, subcultural fashion is precisely predicated on this overlap between personal individuality and readability as belonging to a certain group[v]. To be knowable as a member of group X, innovation needs to be in keeping with the general aesthetic framework of the subculture. This negotiation between ‘same as’ and ‘different from’ is the mechanics of group cohesion, and forms a vital function for members to form their identity. Subjects are therefore well aware of the fact that they look similar to each other – this is the point. Yet when presented here, this process is easily misunderstood as both trivial and self-delusional.
This series of images conceives of a truly valued identity that is in opposition to the repetition and similarity it depicts, as something which is not classifiable and which cannot be rendered into a typology. But in inviting the viewer to consider themselves as the privileged bearers of individuality, in comparison to these deluded carbon copies, Exactitudes is in fact perpetuating the cult of individuality that it claims to be undermining. Desite what these images might suggest, there are not two separate states of being – ‘individual’ or ‘group member’ – these are part of the same identity, with membership of multiple groups and communities co-occurring.
Importantly, these subjects only look similar and interchangeable to the outsider. When viewing these images, instead of seeing uniformity, I still see individuality. The differences between different mohawks, or the variations the Gothic style, display different levels of competency, understanding and interpretation of what might be to the outsider ‘the same thing’. The Goths in particular range from vampiric or Victorian to eastern or hippy, and it is in the perception of these differences, rather than the false elision of difference due to similarity, which marks the insider from the baffled outsider. These typologies, whether intentionally or not, in fact present the vast breadth of humanity lying in small, sometimes imperceptible, differences, rather than in ubiquitous vast contrast. Whereas these images encourage a narrow-minded and ill-conceived approach to the social construction of identity – suggesting that similarity is something to be avoided – the subject does not in fact have to be radically different from their peers in order to retain their individuality. The suggestion that they are somehow laughable for being alike displays the photographers’ anxiety around the contemporary question of individuality and authenticity – and it is the picture it creates of them which is arguably the most interesting. After all, the artists are unlikely to position themselves within these frames and these social groups, and are therefore arguably more deluded about their privileged, refined individuality than their subjects.
[iv] Blank, Gill (2005) “Exactitudes”, Influence (New York), vol. 2, pp. 70—73.
[v] Hodkinson, P. (2002) Goth: Identity, Style and Subculture. Oxford: Berg