Infinity Mirror: Hans Eijkelboom, People of the Twenty-First Century

Hans Eijkelboom is a photographer. In his brief and helpful afterword, the critic David Carrier characterizes Eijkelboom as a modern Baudelaire: a flaneur, a stroller, a consummate connoisseur of the crowd. There’s a twist, though: Eijkelboom is interested neither in privileged society nor in its margins. He instead opens his lens to everyone who passes in before him, hanging his camera at chest level around his neck, and photographing whatever’s in front of him.

Like Andy Warhol, Eijkelboom is attracted to consumer culture and our embrace of “multiples.” On a given day between the mid-90s and mid-2000s, his street photography yielded up hundreds of images which, when sorted, emphasized the likenesses in gestures, accessories, and clothing. In People of the Twenty-First Century, Eijkelboom organizes these images in grids of nine to eighteen images, organized by theme. On one page, Amsterdam women in Amsterdam with bare midriffs. On another, Arnhelm men in suits, their hands in their trouser pockets. In still another, women in black leather or faux-leather coats. Then men holding toddlers in their arms. And so on.

Some are very funny. In one 90-minute period, Eijkelboom photographs eleven men and a woman wearing zip-ups printed with military camoflage. On another day his lens finds twelve men shot wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the Rolling Stones’ rude tongue, though none of them look especially rude themselves. During a 2009 trip to Tokyo, he catches eighteen salarymen, each in a coat and tie, each carrying a briefcase, and all wearing white facemasks. On the opposite page are women, all in their late teens or early twenties, wearing skirts whose hemlines fall two-thirds the way up their thighs; three are in garters. On still another day, in just one hour his camera glimpses a dozen people wearing t-shirts emblazoned with Alberto Korda’s iconic photo of Che Guevara.

Few of us would notice any of these people if Eijkelboom didn’t group them together: a dozen coats, all  incarnadine. A dozen shirts, all done up in horizontal stripes. A dozen cardigan sweaters. A dozen knit fisherman hats.

Carrier doesn’t make the comparison, but while I flipped through Eijkelboom’s pages, I thought of the late Bill Cunningham, street fashion photographer for the New York Times. Unlike Eijkelboom, Cunningham did not feign anonymity: he rode flamboyantly with his trademark bicycle throughout New York, his camera doing its thing openly. Many of the women he photographed knew he was looking. At one time not long ago, a woman whose fashion choices ended up in one of Cunningham’s published photos could claim bragging rights.

Like Cunningham, Eijkelboom documents the relationship between what we choose to wear, and how we want to be seen. Like Cunningham, Eijkelboom possesses a keen sense of whimsy. It was entirely typical of Cunningham to devote a column in the Times to extreme platform shoes, violently colorful socks, or extravagant scarves. Eijkelboom’s eye confesses similar preferences.

While Cunningham was entirely absorbed by fashion, Eijkelboom’s precursors are 20thcentury art photographers. Carrier mentions early 20thcentury German photographer August Sander and, more recently, Bernd and Hilda Belcher. While Cunningham really was all about the clothes, Eijkelboom is all about the street.

I mentioned earlier that Eijkelboom shares certain interests with Warhol. Both are, in a certain respect, expressionist documentarians, compiling visual manifests of consumer culture. In this, Eijkelboom’s work is akin to that of certain 20thcentury writers. Flipping through People of the 21stCentury, I am reminded of Joe Brainard’s and Georges Perec’s I Rememberseries, of Félix Fénéon’s dry aphoristic observations in Novels in Three Lines, and of the sometimes cryptic one-liners in Robert Crosson’s Daybook. Eijkelboom shares with all these writers an attraction to the ephemeral and the ordinary.

After a time, it becomes tiring to move, page after page, among the thousands of tessellated repetitions. I’m not exhausted because there are so many, but because they compel attention to detail. I end up examining each image, trying to figure out how one individual differs from another despite the red coat or briefcase common to all.

What keeps me going, of course, is this: the lens always points toward the reader. It points towards me.

I am no different from most of Eijkelboom’s Dutch, Japanese, and American men. When I dress myself in the morning, I am haphazard in my choices, a habit assisted by the haphazard quality of my wardrobe. My clothing is in no way distinctive: a pair of 501s, a black or gray t-shirt, a button-down blueish or grayish shirt. Like many of Eikelboom’s middle-aged Dutch men, my affluent gut spills out over my belt. No wonder we wear our shirts out. You will guess a lot about me from this – guesses which may shoot far wide of the truth, or come so uncomfortably close to it that I’d squirm if I knew.

Eijkelboom’s images demonstrate that our clothing both displays and conceals. It doesn’t do the concealing especially well.

And yet, coming to the end of these thousand images, the people in Eijkelboom’s plain sight remain, after all, inscrutable. I squint at each image. I know everything about these men and women and children, and I also know nothing about them. This is why I turn, page after page, all the way to the end. Like me, these men and women give up some of their secrets, but they hold fast to the more important ones.

What else can I do but look?

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