Sander took extreme care in choosing the context of his portrait photographs (OCA, 2015). This exercise is a result of my study of his work, focusing mainly on a 1983 edition of his book originally published in 1929. This book, “Antlitz der Zeit” or “Face of our Time”, comprises 60 photographs taken between 1905 and 1929 representing farmers (individuals, couples or families), workers, artists and politicians (Sander, 1983).
Around 1924, Sander formed the project of documenting the German contemporary society through a series of portraits (August Sander Stiftung, 2016). Looking at the chronology of the images published in “Face of our Time”, two periods can be distinguished. The first one, up to 1914, mainly represents farming figures, while the second one from 1924 to 1929 essentially shows city people or artisans. Therefore, I understand that Sander’s primary interest in farming communities extended to other categories of people once his ambitious project took shape.
The reason for my observation is that I find a notable difference of choice of background between the photographs of the two periods. I will first make observations on his portraits of farming folks. For these, Sander often includes forest or fields, probably a direct reference to their relationship with nature. In a second posthumous book about his huge undertaking, “People of the 20th Century” (Sander, 1980), the choice of images indicates more diversity in his selection of backgrounds for this same type of subjects, showing them in front of buildings (ibid., photograph 37), with their tools (ibid. ph.46) or even on a blank background (ibid., ph.68). Clothing styles also differ. In the first period, the posers seem to have dressed with their best Sunday outfit, but later farmers appear in working attire. Holding a book (possibly the bible) is also a distinctive feature in portraits of single elderly people, possibly hinting at the strong link between them and their religious beliefs (Sander, 1983, ph.1 and 3).
Sander’s intention was to describe individuals as members of the society, in particular their position in it. He did not want to show their self-identity (Clarke, 1997). To reach his objective, he gave his subjects total autonomy in the pose they wanted to adopt or, in other terms, how they wanted to appear. He was careful not to interfere (Kozloff, 2007). What he intended to display was the effect on the face of people of circumstances, life and time (ibid.). Most of his farming subjects look to me stern, neutral at best, unsympathetic at worst. Yet, one photograph strikes me as being at odds with this overall feeling, the Shepherd (Sander, 1983, ph.2). It is one of the few for which Sander settled on a tightly cropped face. The background shows nothing, being too blurred. But the man’s expression is that of kindness and, maybe, wisdom. I would like to make his acquaintance, whereas I find the other people rather uninviting.
When there are no trees or forests, fields are other typical backgrounds for Sander’s depiction of the farming world. In this regard, I find the “Prize-winners” (Ibid., ph.9) most interesting: he angled his camera in such a way that the horizon is slightly above the heads of the group of people. This makes them look like they are solidly embedded (or even encased) into the land, as if members of a local society, he wanted to show their attachment to traditions and to the past. By contrast, other instances of such composition, for example the Young Farmers (Ibid., ph.6) and the Village Schoolmaster (Ibid., ph.11), show the subjects with their head above the horizon. This gives a feeling of wider space, maybe symbolic of a bright open future for the young people, knowledge and openness for the teacher.
As already mentioned, Sander, in the later part of his project (after 1924), introduced more diversity in his choice of background. For example, The Lord of the Manor (Sander, 1983, ph.10) appears to be set in a well maintained garden. A gravel path is visible; a sign of luxury that would appear superfluous to an ordinary farmer. Only two little flowers (some kind of Dogwood I guess) on the extreme left are further indications of wealth. Similarly, the Provincial Couple (Ibid., ph.12) poses in front of a garden trellis. While the lady is soberly dressed, her husband’s attire shows relative prosperity. She gazes away from the camera and sits as far as possible from her husband, while he looks directly at us. A similar reference to social status appears in the Middle Class Family (Ibid., ph.30), with the display of curtains on windows and decorative plants.
Workers and artisans are depicted within a clearer context, often holding their tools or other indication of their trade as exemplified by the Pastry Cook (Sander, 1983, ph.16). There appears to be a turning point when Sander features intellectuals, artists, politicians or industrialists. In these instances, a blank background is preferred, with a few exceptions. The Physician (Ibid., ph.44) is shown in what appears to be a hospital or laboratory, possibly an explicit reference to science. The Industrialist (Ibid., ph.46) sits on an antique chair in front of elaborated wood panels, suggestion of a rich mansion or even a castle. The Art Historian (Ibid., ph.43) poses in a room that I could easily imagine to be in a university. Finally, it is what looks like a concert hall that was selected as the backdrop for the Pianist (Ibid., ph.53). When I look at all these photographs, I cannot help thinking that Sander used the background as a way to emphasize the role of the character in society. Yet, from a practical point of view, did he do it on purpose, painstakingly researching the locations and matching his subjects? Looking at “People of the 20th Century” (Sander, 1980), I notice that the use of a blank background is equally predominant. Therefore, I suppose that he could not always choose the background and often had to settle for a uniform surface. This may also have been influenced by the fact that he was operating a photographic business. Some of the photographs could have been the result of paid work, allowing more sophistication in their setting.
Earlier, I made reference to Sander not wanting to direct his subjects in their posing. I find that in some cases this gives quite astonishing results. The Parlamentarian of the Democratic Party (Sander, 1983, ph.42) holds his umbrella with the tip pointing upwards, as in a futile attempt to be ready to protect himself against the fast approaching Nazi hurricane. The Grammarschool Boy (Ibid., ph.40) seems full of his self-importance and pride, affecting a mannered pose, one hand in the pocket of his very elegant jacket, the other holding a cigarette. I can also see that the composure displayed by wealthy people indicates that they are used to being photographed. They seem to try hard (in many cases successfully) to give themselves some substance. I find a good example in the Tenor (Ibid., ph.55), holding a chic hat and resting his hand on the fur collar of his coat. His look, away from the camera, seems very dreamy, artistic or even inspired. Conversely, the Barman or the Cleaning Woman (Ibid., ph.57 and 58) simply look straight into the lens, not giving me any feeling that they imagine to be anything else than themselves. Interestingly, and certainly purposively, the two last pictures in “Face of our Time” are that of a two unemployed men (Ibid., ph.59 and 60). As background, Sander elected the open space of the city, as if he wanted to make the point that poverty originated from there. This changed in the second book published posthumously (Sander, 1980), with poor people and vagrants also shown in the countryside.
In the introduction of “People of the 20th Century”, Sander praises the capacity of photography to represent the truth (Sander, 1980). But was Sander successful in his ambitious project of truly documenting German society? Documenting may have been successful with the publication of his second book, but certainly not with the first. As stated by Kozloff (2007), the initial selection of 60 photographs published in 1929 pleased neither the right nor the left sides of the political spectrum; there was too much emphasis on the extremes – rich and poor or powerful and powerless. As for the truth, Badger (2007) declares that Sander’s sympathies are visible and I can see them in the way his subjects are allowed to pose and with the choice of background. Also, the concluding two photographs of “Face of our Time” are examples of his own bias. Sander’s work was sanctioned by the Nazis, who destroyed all existing copies of his first book. He “sympathised with any opposition to them” (Kozloff, 2007, p.181). Moreover, his son, a member of a left wing political party, was arrested in 1934 and died in prison in 1944 (August Sander Stiftung, 2016).
Sander’s work also poses the question as to what can be called a portrait and how much we “show rather than reveal a face in any public context” (Clarke, 1997, p.114). There is also the question of what we see when looking at a photograph. For example, my perception of the Grammarschool Boy (Sander, 1983, ph.40) is to a certain extent unkind. But would this view be shared by anyone else? Perhaps, this is the whole issue of balance between the teller of a story and its listener, with much space left to interpretation.
|August Sander Stiftung, Biography [online]. August Sander Stiftung website.
Available from http://augustsander.com [Accessed 15 April 2016]
|Badger, G. (2007) The Genius of Photography, London: Quadrille Publishing Limited|
|Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face, London: Phaidon Press Limited|
|OCA (2015) Identity and Place, Barnsley: Open College of the Arts|
|Sander, A. (1980) Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, München: Schirmer/Mosel|
|Sander, A. (1983) Antlitz der Zeit, München: Schirmer/Mosel|