Essay on Street Style

Interview with Hans Eijkelboom

Lewis Baltz

IMA, Vol. 11, Spring 2015

Since the beginnings of modern fashion, photography has played a crucial role in the development of the industry. Destined as they are to sell a luxury product, fashion photographs have generally been sophisticated affairs, involving studios, budgets and teams of professionals all working to create the most desirable image possible. However, in recent years there is a very different type of photograph that has become one of the mainstays of contemporary fashion imagery. That genre is commonly referred to as street style photography.

Fashion has always been intimately linked to the street as both a venue for inspiration and the barometer for success of any fashion brand. This relationship has been recognized by the twentieth century’s most celebrated fashion photographers from Peter Lindbergh to Helmut Newton. For these photographers the street has offered a more dynamic and energetic environment than the studio.

Nontsikelelo Veleko, Nkosana, 2004

Nontsikelelo Veleko, Nkosana, 2004

The street style photograph exists at an interesting crossroads between street photography, fashion photography and portraiture. It is made in a very simple way but is generally based on a fairly complex set of criteria. The street style shot follows the traditional codes of street photography where the photographer goes hunting for subjects in the city rather than setting up a shoot. Whether it is posed or not, it is not a premeditated photograph, but an off-the-cuff moment created between the photographer and the subject. Its primary purpose is to show the subject’s outfit or some particular aspect of it. As such it is often less about the style of the photograph or the photographer’s composition than it is about documenting or celebrating the style of the subject. Just as the sophisticated, dramatic compositions of traditional photojournalism have increasingly been replaced by the raw energy of the camera phone snapshot, fashion photography has increasingly gravitated to the street style photograph. Its depiction of fashion has become the industry’s basic currency: a look at how fashion plays out in the real world. 

Street style photography has truly come of age with the rise of the fashion blog over the past decade. Fashion blogs began to emerge on the Internet in the early 2000s and quickly became influential players in the fashion scene. As blogs took off, the need for images and the growth of photo-sharing sites like Flickr convinced bloggers of the need to create their own photographs. The recognized pioneer in this area is The Sartorialist, the blog launched by the American Scott Schuman in 2005. After leaving his position as head of men’s fashion at his showroom, he began carrying a digital camera to photograph people on the street whose style he found striking and then uploading those images to his blog. A fashion insider, Schuman initially focused on the capitals of the industry (New York, Milan, Paris) with a series of full body portraits that showcased entire outfits: a format which became de rigueur for many street style photographers.

The Sartorialist was quickly joined by other blogs including Yvan Rodic’s FaceHunter and Tommy Tun’s Jak & Jil (which has now been rebranded as that also tapped into the growing interest in the street style trend. Schuman’s former partner Garance Doré has also become a highly successful street style photographer in her own right. As the street style blogs grew, these photographers quickly moved away from the strict full body portrait compositions and tried to develop their own photographic style. For instance, the Canadian Tommy Ton is known for his landscape photographs and a focus on the specific details of an outfit. Schuman himself has abandoned the full body portrait convention and now shoots in a more diverse style.

Since the early days of the street style blog, as with any sub-culture on the Internet, things have changed immensely. Hundreds if not thousands of blogs have emerged, now accompanied by Instagram accounts and Tumblr blogs, each with its own particular specificity or flavor. From Gunnar Hämmerle’s Style Clicker—a personal, unpolished ode to German street style—to New Yorker Ari Seth Cohen’s Advanced Style—a blog that focuses on the most fashionable members of the city’s older demographic—it seems now that there is a street style blog for every trend or fashion.

From its relatively humble beginnings the candid fashion street photograph has become a major part of the industry. Many of the photographers mentioned above have gone on to become syndicated by major photo agencies and regularly publish in the industry’s leading magazines. Schuman and Rodic’s images have both led to best-selling books and Schuman has also been showing his prints in fine art galleries and museums for several years now.

This explosion of the street style photograph begs the question of where this genre originated, which leads immediately to New York-based photographer, Bill Cunningham. Since the late 1970s, Cunningham has maintained a regular column in the paper, becoming a fixture on the New York fashion scene. Designer Oscar de la Renta has said of Cunningham, “More than anyone else in the city, he has the whole visual history of the last forty or fifty years of New York.” While celebrity has remained a regular feature throughout his career, Cunningham’s interest has always been in clothes themselves and his photographs showcase both high and low fashion equally.  

The Tokyo-born Shoichi Aoki, is another street style pioneer, albeit in a vey different mould. Aoki is known for the fanzine Fruits which he launched in 1997 to document the outlandish trends worn by young people in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. The area was known as a hotspot for fashion subcultures, from wa-mono to cosplay or decora, a startling mix of traditional Japanese clothes, handmade and secondhand clothing, and designer fashions. Aoki named the fanzine based on the bright colours and fresh looks that Aoki photographed in this neighborhood. As he describes it, “The fashion movement that came about in Harajuku was a revolution.” Fruits has become a cult fanzine over time and in 2001 a selection of Aoki’s photographs was published as a book by Phaidon.

While street style photographs are generally associated with contemporary fashion, its roots can be found throughout the history of photography. In fact, it could be traced back to the very beginning of “street photography.” Some of the earliest examples of street style images were taken by the French photographer and bon-vivant Jacques-Henri Lartigue in the early 1900s. A self-taught photographer who came from a wealthy French family, Lartigue had a keen eye for modernity, from motor cars to airplanes but also the latest women’s fashions. On weekends he regularly went to photograph on the Avenue du Bois de Boulogne in Western Paris, a favoured destination for parisiennes parading their newest outfits. At the time cameras were far from ubiquitous but Lartigue’s photographs bear all the hallmarks of the street style image: candid snapshots taken on the fly that celebrate the subject and her choice of outfit.  

Another ancestor of the genre can be found in the photographers active on the streets of cities around the world in the 1960s. At the time Shinjuku was Tokyo’s most vibrant entertainment district and this is where the street photographer Katsumi Watanabe plied his trade. Every night, this portrait photographer would wander the streets selling portraits to passersby for 200 yen. His customers were the regulars of the area, the hostesses, bar workers, dancers and cross-dressers. Strictly speaking these are not street style photographs as they were portraits designed to be sold to their subjects as a souvenir to be sent home or hung in the bar or club where they worked. As such fashion played an important part in these images, as Watanabe’s subjects were had all dressed to impress. Despite advances in technology, and the difficulties he subsequently faced in selling his portraits, Watanabe continued to work in the area for over thirty years and much like Bill Cunningham in New York, his archive is a visual history of the trends and fashions in one of the city’s most vibrant districts.

Like Cunningham or Watanabe, the Dutch conceptual artist Hans Eijkelboom has devoted several decades to photographing fashion in the street, but in search of something very different. While most street style photographers are driven by a search for the exceptional, Eijkelboom is on the hunt for the ordinary. For his series Photo Notes, the artist has spent over two decades photographing in the busiest public spaces in cities around the world. In each location, he first tries to identify the most common and recurring fashion choice and then photographs every occurrence of that theme in a short burst of between 1-2 hours. He assembles the resulting portraits in 3 x 3 grids, each one illustrating the theme of that time and place, from flannel shirts in Arnhem to fur coats in New York. Eijkelboom is not interested in fashion or clothes themselves—the people he chooses to photograph would not even register in the eyes of most street style photographers—but rather in what they can tell us about our individual and collective identities.

Increasingly the street style photograph is moving beyond the major fashion capitals to locations much further off fashion’s beaten path. The African continent in particular has become one of the most interesting territories for the field. One of the most astonishing of these fashion trends originates in Brazzaville, the capital of the Republic of Congo. La Sape, or Société des Ambianceurs et des Personnes Élégantes is a cultural movement built around the image of the dandy, with colorful tailored suits, fedoras and elegance turned up to eleven, despite the surrounding poverty. A way of life that is brilliantly captured in Daniele Tamagni’s 2009 book, Gentlemen of Bacongo. More recently, the young South African photographer Nontsikelelo Veleko’s has gained attention for her Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder series: a group of bold street fashion portraits that provide a fascinating and surprising view of youth culture, fashion and gender identity in South Africa. It is through these new locations, situations and departures that the street style will continue to fascinate.

As the street style photograph develops through new territories and new approaches, its borders with other genres of photography are becoming more porous. Street style photographers are exhibiting their work in fine art galleries and photography museums and the genre is also expanding, feeding on existing photographic approaches from the art world. Conversely, fine art photographers are making use of street style photography to create images that deal not only with fashion, but with identity, sexuality, gender and self-representation. It is through this dialogue with other photographic styles that street style photography can become connected beyond the narrow realm of fashion photography and continue to grow into an interesting genre in its own right.

For over 20 years, almost every single day, Hans Eijkelboom has been taking pictures of people on busy city streets around the world. Assembling the results into grids, Eijkelboom’s Photo Notes provide a fascinating insight into the way that we dress and how individuality expresses itself from within the mass.

Hans Eijkelboom, September 9, 2006, Paris

Hans Eijkelboom, September 9, 2006, Paris

How did your Photo Notes project begin?

Basically it began at the end of the 1960s when I started to work on a series of projects about identity, both my own identity and identity in society. It was a logical step in my way of working because I am interested to know what part of me is a product of culture and the society I live in and what part is basically my own self.

When I started I didn’t only photograph clothing but everything in my daily life on a daily basis. It was really like a diary. After 3 or 4 years I started to only concentrate on the street and people on the street. I called the project Photo Notes because it is a combination of making notes and photographs.

The project seems to follow a strict code or set of rules? What are the codes?

I didn’t want any subjectivity in the project so I need to be as strict as possible. When I do a shoot I go to a shopping street or a popular public space. I stand and look for 10-20 minutes and when there is a subject that jumps out from the mass that becomes the theme for the day. Then I start photographing for between 1 and 2 hours. It is really important for me that this is something that came out of a specific moment and situation. I also wanted to make sure that the camera wouldn’t interfere in the situation, because when you take out a camera, people change their behavior. I wanted to keep that dynamic out of this project so I take the pictures with the camera around my neck using a shutter release.

You work in relatively short bursts? Why such a short time?

I restrict it because it needs to reflect a specific moment rather than a thing that you go looking for. People often ask if I know the new fashion photographers who work in the street. For their images, they are looking for the special, the exceptional. Whereas I am looking for the ordinary, the things that occur many times on the street.

You have been working on this project for over 20 years. Do you think the project will come to an end at some point?

No. Now I am interested in going to cities without tourists, because I’m interested in the relationship between the clothing and the culture of a place. For instance, I have been working in Birmingham over the past year and that is more or less like paradise for me. This is really a place to see English society, because on the weekend people come from all around the region to this square in the center of the city.

I’m interested in photographing in Istanbul. I want to go to the Eastern countries and to Poland. And I want to go to Dallas. The difference between New York and the rest of the US is incredible. I’m not interested in showing that difference. Generally, I now want to go outside the capital cities to less major cities. 

Lewis Baltz, whose austere black-and-white images of the rapid urbanization of the American landscape helped to redefine photographic practice in the 1970s, passed away in November 2014 at the age of 69 in his hometown of Paris.

Lewis Baltz,  Santa Cruz , 1970

Lewis Baltz, Santa Cruz, 1970

Born in Newport Beach, California, Baltz remains best known for his work on the changing landscape of his native state in the 1970s and 1980s. With the series Tract Houses (1971), The New Industrial Parks near Irvine, California (1973–75), Park City (1978–80), San Quentin Point (1981–83) and Candlestick Point (1984–89) Baltz developed a unique body of work that helped to shift photographic concerns away from a search for beauty in the natural environment to the study of the rapid transformation of the landscape through urbanization. These series remain his most well-known and well-loved bodies of work.

Photography came to Baltz at a very early age and with a clear purpose: “I was a repulsively serious kid, and I was really serious about (my photographs) being art.” Baltz was never interested in any form of applied photography; from the age of twelve he already harboured the fantasy of seeing his photographs hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This was all the more extraordinary since this was a time (the 1950s) when art and photography were two very separate worlds.

After studies at the San Francisco Art Institute and Claremont Graduate School, his career began with the landmark group exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape in 1975 at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. Baltz’s photographs were some of the most minimalist in the show and his subject matter the most ordinary. As he later explained, “I was looking for the things that were (…) the most quotidian, everyday, unremarkable, and trying to represent them in the way that was the most quotidian, everyday and unremarkable.” The exhibition signaled a major shift in the world of photography away from the natural world towards the built environment, a shift that is still clearly visible throughout contemporary photographic practice in both the United States and Europe.

After working on the landscape for close to twenty years, Baltz reached a turning point in 1989, when he realized that his “work could be social in much more meaningful ways than in the past.” The rise of digital technology had attracted his interest and he began a series of works on the ways in which these technologies were affecting contemporary urban life. Series such as Sites of Technology (1989–91) and Ronde de Nuit (1992) also marked a change in approach as he moved away from small black-and-white prints in favour of monumental cibachrome prints.

In many ways Lewis Baltz was a paradoxical figure. He claimed to want to make his work “look like anyone could do it” and yet a grid of his black-and-white photographs is recognizable at a hundred paces. His formal, precise compositions seem to be objective descriptions of the world and yet he saw objectivity in photography as an illusion. Most surprisingly of all, although the extent of his influence is plainly evident in today’s photographic landscape, Lewis Baltz was never all that interested in photography itself. As he once explained, “I made photographs because photography was the simplest, most direct way of recording something.” Photography, or indeed art itself, only mattered to Baltz in their ability to engage with the world.

In fact, the overriding thread in Lewis Baltz’s work was his consistent debunking of photography’s greatest myth: its supposed ability to reveal some essential or invisible aspect of the world. Baltz photographed the banal and the invisible not in order to uncover a hidden truth but to show the impossibility and the inaccessibility of it, while somehow conspiring to make outstanding photographs in the process.

Baltz once said, “For me a work of art is something that is interesting to think about rather than something that is beautiful to look at.” He was a rare combination of a great thinker whose art more than lived up to his ideas. With his passing, photography has lost one of its clearest and most incisive voices. 

By Marc Feustel