The year was 1994. The gabber scene in Rotter- dam was at its height, and photographer Ari Versluis and stylist Ellie Uyttenbroek decided to take to the streets and find 40 of its most loyal followers to photograph. They shot them one by one, with their shaved heads and colorful zip-up tops, then laid out the images next to each other to highlight both the similarities and the differences. What neither Versluis or Uyttenbroek knew then, however, was that this series of images—collated within a grid and set against a white background—would evolve into a project that not only captured the imaginations of multiple generations of creatives around the world, but would also come to define their creative lives for nearly three decades.
For fast-forward 27 years later, and Exactitudes has become something else entirely. No longer just a project exploring the semiotics of dress— balancing these sociological observations with a spirit of humour, playfulness and warmth—it also serves as a series of time capsules, preserving in amber these moments of countercultural scenes on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream. (As the cycle of trends continues to spin, some have not just faded from the pop culture consciousness, but been resuscitated once again by a new generation.) Mohawks, rockers, goths, tourists, businessmen: to look across the head-spinning array of scenes and style moments is to see the world through Versluis and Uyttenbroek’s weird and wonderful lens, their fascination with the tribal qualities of clothing now becoming an essential document for understanding the relationship between anthropology and fashion.
While the pair are reluctant to ascribe any political meaning to their work, it’s hard not to feel that their relentless curiosity is more relevant than ever at a time of stark political division. An “Exactitude” shot in Berlin in 2019 stars people wearing hoodies featuring the European Union flag; meanwhile, the global communities the pair have chosen to spotlight more broadly feature people of every nationality and all walks of life. It’s in the weird and wonderful world of Exactitudes that they seem to have found their perfect home. Here, the pair talk to Re-Edition about their irrepressible collector’s instinct, serving as an enduring inspiration to fashion designers, and how Exactitudes has permanently changed the way they see the world around them.
LIAM: I wanted to start by going back to the be- ginning. What spurred you to first start the Exactitudes project, and did you ever picture it being as beloved and enduring as it has clearly become?
ELLIE: We definitely didn’t realise it would become that big. But at the same time, we’re both collectors. So when we started, it was already some kind of drug to us, so we knew we’d keep doing it, even if we had no idea whether it was going to be successful.
ARI: You do feel immediately that there’s potential: when you start a series and you have number two and three, you really want to make numbers five to ten. You know that it’s addictive and you want to go on, because it gives you a lot of insight in the way people hope to distinguish themselves from others and what is happening in the streets. It’s super important also to set out here that it was all before the internet. The street was very vital and important as a mirror for society and street fashion. That was what we both loved, to encounter people from all walks of life, to ask them to come to the studio, to be with them, learn from them. Once we started, there was no stopping.
ELLIE: That was the successful part of the work, we didn’t stop. It kept on growing. Then people be- came curious because they wanted to know what was next.
LIAM: Did the shift to digital change how you approached Exactitudes? I imagine that must have been quite seismic for you given how fundamental everyday style is to the project.
ARI: The magic at the beginning was that photography was far more exclusive. You shot in a very professional way, using medium format. Although we were also very into working with Polaroids. But in the early days that was the magic that people saw immediately, the effect of their posturing or their clothes—of being portrayed. It was an honour when you asked people in the street and they didn’t really understand, so you had to invite them to the studio to really explain it. Then they saw all the Polaroids hanging from all the series we were working on. That was very motivating for people. Nowadays, though, the magic is gone. You take a shot and in ten min- utes it’s on the other side of the world. That changed a lot in the procedure of making the work, but also in the attitude of the people. There’s no comparison now, really, with the early days and the way people behaved and reacted to the work.
LIAM: I’m interested in the way you refer to it as a process of collecting. Do you think photographing people for the Exactitudes project fed into that col- lector’s instinct?
ELLIE: Well, you see one person or one style you like and you just want more. We would distinguish one subcultural style, and then work out wheth- er it’s interesting enough to find more. And also, can we find more? But When you start collecting the images and putting them together, you want to have more.
ARI: You want to zoom into the styling more, I think. The way people dress is a language, and you want to discover what kind of language they are speaking. That is the most interesting part, that you learn from people that came to the studio. When they look at the polaroids, elderly people will say, ‘You already have a shot of me,’ and we say, ‘No, you have to look closer, it’s a different lady.’ The local element is an important one. With common styles, you want to learn why people do it the way they do it.
LIAM: As the years went on, you went far beyond your origins in Rotterdam to find subjects. What compelled you to expand your scope in that way? ARI: A very important element of the work that I feel we need to mention is that a lot of it is made for commissions. You produce series in collaboration with institutions, and that was mostly the rea- son why we went abroad to make series at first. It wasn’t that motivated by us, but it ended up grow- ing in that direction. From the beginning, Rotter- dam was an interesting city. It was bombarded in the war, it started all over again in the ’60s and ’70s. And it’s a very genuine multicultural city. We were always interested in where people were root- ed, and how that played into the city’s many im- migrant communities. Now, identity is far more liq- uid, but at that time, people wanted to distinguish themselves in groups. Part of the motivation for going abroad was to find those original roots and to find inspiration there.
ELLIE: Also we didn’t visit all the countries we actually wanted. Sometimes we had hopes for a series that we wanted to do—Ari had been talking about a Black cowboy series for 15 years, I re- member but we never got the opportunity to do it. Now there’s this movie on Netflix, Concrete Cow- boy, which is a very beautiful movie about Black cowboys. And then I’m like, shit, we should have gone. [laughs] But it’s not always possible at the time.
LIAM: I’m sure it’s frustrating to see these scenes you might have missed, but I think you have to re- mind yourself that to capture everything is impossible, right? Although maybe it just speaks to the collector in you that you feel so strongly still about those missed opportunities.
ARI: Yes, you’re probably right. And when you
zoom in on your own world, on the streets where you are living, you see so much. You have enough ammunition to work with, and you don’t necessarily need to travel the world. It was pleasant and we learnt from it, but to zoom into your own environment, there’s actually enough. So many things are happening at the present moment that are interesting.
ELLIE: And as you say, it’s impossible to cover the whole world.
LIAM: But would you cover the whole world if you could?
ARI: We are thinking about a way to expand the Exactitudes method of working by maybe looking for collaborations or associates around the world. To work in the same manner of grids, so you don’t necessarily have to go there. The essence of Exactitudes is so clear to everybody, that we some- times get requests like, ‘I’m living in Singapore, I see a lot of those groups that might be interesting for you.’ How can we push this idea even further on a worldwide level without actually being there personally yourself. Covid made us learn that we can do a lot through the internet. You don’t have to be on a set to shoot the image. It’s more a matter of art direction, selecting, choosing a mentality. You see the potential of it. The computer can be on the set. Everybody has smartphones in their pockets with a camera on it.
LIAM: Your work has been incredibly influential in the fashion sphere, from your Helmut Lang campaign to Demna Gvasalia’s autumn/winter 2017 collection at Vetements, which drew some inspiration from your work. What do you think it is about Exactitudes that appeals to designers so strongly? ELLIE: Our inspiration has always been based on fashion, really, and it’s always been hard for people to define our work. Is it photography, fashion, art, design? They can’t put it in a neat box. When we do interviews, people always ask us about the anthropological or the sociological aspect of the work, and while of course, there are those aspects, the main interest has always come from fashion. The really old guys that were wearing worn out clothes that grew on them, for example, where we saw details far more interesting than the youth buying and wearing the new stuff. So we’ve always thought it was quite logical that designers were inspired by our work, and it was very nice to see Demna’s collection based on our series.
ARI: It was a sign that we look with the same eyes. Ellie comes from a fashion direction back- ground, and the first thing you learn when you
study fashion is how to collect. That was the same thing with Exactitudes. Rotterdam was quite an isolated city at that time, with hardly any official fashion at all. We just started to shoot the street.
ELLIE: We try to make the everyday fashion- able. When it comes to how style features in our work, people always think it’s easy to make. But it’s not, because we are very careful and critical about the people we portray. They have to really fit our vision. Especially with the old people, by shooting them well and categorising them together and styling the series, it becomes almost a fashionable artwork. I think you can see that it is about fashion.
ARI:And in terms of talking the same language, looking at similar inspirations coming from the street, with Demna it was interesting to see what he created too.
LIAM: Do you think that seeing your work trans- lated to the high fashion sphere means the original source of inspiration loses its value at all along the way?
ARI: When you deal with fashion, you deal with consumer culture. This is the ultimate expression of consumer culture. It’s a logical progression, and it’s just the way it is.
ELLIE: We always work with and around some kind of subculture. For us, the work will always be the work. Exactitudes belongs to us, and we show it in the way we want to, whether in museums or online, so the people that are interested will know. In culture, everything is all about collaborations, and we just have to get used to it, because it’s not going to change. When I asked my daughter this morning to play “Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack, she put on a version that I hardly knew. She doesn’t even know who Roberta Flack is, and then we Googled it and it seems that the song by Roberta Flack is not even written by Roberta Flack. So you can’t fight it, that’s the world we live in.
ARI: Good work is vulnerable. That’s beautiful. I don’t care.
ELLIE: And we’re not producing a lot of Exactitudes at the moment. We are capitalising on our oeuvre which has been running for almost 27 years. I don’t want to say we are old, because we aren’t old—although literally we are. We just don’t feel the urge to create a new series at the moment.
LIAM: How have the restrictions of the pandemic affected your approach to the project? It must be enormously challenging without being able to
find people on the street?
ELLIE: The last series we did before the pandemic, we did the casting online and I didn’t really like it. It didn’t feel real, as people always identify differently online than they do in real life. It’s handy and convenient but it’s not so inspiring, and I don’t think it ended up like the work we used to do in the streets.
ARI: It’s all about the encounter, at the end of the day. It’s also about your personal experiences of going places, that’s the fun part of it. I call it the ‘staged documentary’: documentary in the sense that you really went to all those places to find the people, to talk with them, to use your eyes, to make snapshots, we discuss it, and eventually invite the people to come over and be shot in our studio. That’s what makes it so exciting to do. The internet is convenient, but it takes away the magic.
LIAM: So have you been doing all your casting online for the past year?
ARI: We haven’t made a series for the last two years. I think we’re getting to a stage where you can understand what it’s all about. Now, we’re thinking of new forms of expanding the oeuvre by setting up associates in different countries, although we’re still in the middle of thinking about that. That doesn’t mean that we can’t make series anymore, but we want to try differ- ent routes.
LIAM: I was looking across your photographs and thinking about how they represent style as a form of tribalism, or at least how we dress ourselves to represent the subculture to which we belong. For so long that was a statement of political intent that could feel really powerful, but it can also become something more dangerous too. Do you think the project speaks to the political divisiveness of the moment in any way? ARI: We always try to avoid that question actually. We want to show a myriad of styles and possibilities, rather than enter a polarised discussion which has no end. Our old work was made at a time when identity politics was not on the agenda that much. Now, everybody is repeating in an accelerated way, a language and positioning which is sometimes quite question- able.
ELLIE: We are wondering when the time will arrive when they start calling out some of our work. There probably will be stuff in it that we wrote in the past which is nowadays not very politically correct anymore.