‘What did August Sander (1876-1964) tell his sitters before he took their pictures? And how did he say it so they all believed him in the same way? […] Did he simply say that their photographs were going to be a recorded part of history? And did he refer to history in such a way that their vanity and shyness dropped away, so that they looked into the lens , telling themselves, using a strange historical sense, “I looked like this”?’
– John Berger (1979)
The more I look at August Sander’s photographs of people in Germany at the start of the 20th century, the less certain I become of what exactly it is that I’m meant to be looking at. If – as Sander claimed – they form a cross-section of a society, it is not a society that I have personally experienced.
All my examples are taken from the 1994 reissue of Face of Our Time. Sander died in April 1964, a month after I was born; time has moved on and if I wish to pick up on signifiers that would have been shared by Germans of Sander’s generation, Looking at his pictures, I must act as a historical detective, not as a member of that ‘Our’ in the title.
Regardless of whether they are alone, or with others, the people in Sander’s photographs look out of the frame – usually directly towards us – and not at whatever they share the picture space with. You can see both their eyes, even in the sole near-profile picture – Tycoon. Kommerzienrat A. von G., Munich (pl.46) – collected In the 1929 book, Face of our Time, you can just make out his left eye as he stares poker-faced out of the right of frame.
The subjects’ expressions remain neutral, controlled or maybe slightly quizzical to the extent that the exceptions – one of the two Boxers (fig.1) grinning happily away beside his solemn opponent – stand out as being unusual in the context of the others. A smile would project an individual personality; here almost everyone is wearing a mask. What lies behind that mask remains a mystery.
The use in the title of that word ‘face’ in the singular has meaning too: this is about a collective surface, not a collection of unique individuals. We are looking at a society here…
Similarly their posture suggests a wariness of the whole process. The camera seems to be positioned slightly below the subjects’ eye-line and as a result they all seem to lean slightly back. And as they withdraw, we are drawn in, peering at the specimens laid out for our observation.
If the faces are very much foregrounded here, the background always remains a background, out of focus and detached from the person standing in front of it. Sometimes the foreground (or in the case of the Member of a Student Duelling Society – pl.41 – everything except his eyes and the top of his scarred face) is also outside the band of focus within the image; Sander has consciously used the movements of his view camera to throw areas of the photographic space in or out of focus, concentrating our attention on his human subjects.
This leaves the background – when it suggests a space, rather than being a simple plain background – to act like the painted backdrop in a theatre: it locates them in a notional place – ‘the forest’, ‘the street’, ‘the library’ – rather than somewhere that you could visit. It becomes part of the performance maintained by the people caught up in the drama of being, and being there.
The Young Farmers (fig.2) stand like meercats, with their heads poking up above the horizon; the prizewinners are neatly tucked beneath it with only their flag breaking free. There is possibly a suggestion of some idea of a wider world out there somewhere (the country teacher also has his head clear of the surrounding countryside) but most of the rural subjects are fully enclosed either inside or else enclosed within woodland (presumably the Westerwald of the pictures’ titles). There is no horizon for them; they are enclosed, just as the final picture in the book Unemployed, 1928 – pl.60 – shows its shaven-headed subject in front of a great stone wall, several steps closer to being trapped than the Redundant Seaman – pl.59 – a plate earlier in the book.
And then there is the way that so many of the people are pictured wearing their best clothes, rather than something suitable for the occupations indicated by the picture’s titles.
The seated farmer in the picture Farming Couple (fig.3) seems to have had a pound of sausages dropped into his lap, so gnarled are his fingers; his wife’s hands similarly suggest a lifetime of hard work, but both of them are wearing stiff dark Sunday clothes and he is seated on what looks like a kitchen chair, in front of those slightly sinister trees.
Like the Young Farmers in fig.2 he has a dressy cane in his hands; his clothes are more old fashioned, but the cane links him to them. You are drawn into speculation: If they were still alive at the end of the first world war – they are young German men, in 1914 after all – one of them may have met their wife-to-be at the dance they are off to in their Sunday best; then they may have then have even survived the 30s (the Communist Leader – pl.24 – and the Revolutionaries – pl.25 – almost certainly would not have; Sander’s son – one of the Working Students in pl.26 – did not) and the second world war, becoming worn old farmers with worn old farmer’s wives too. But the wide open space around them does not offer them the protection of the Westerwald. There are possibilities out there, but also threats. It is sensible to stare out at us and the modern world, wary of what may be out there…
But this is to digress beyond the scope of this post (and Sander’s pictures do have a tendency to draw you into digression). The country people, young or old, male or female have nothing to suggest the nature of their daily labours. As they sit in what could be the same bentwood chair, the book held by Farmer, Westerwald – pl.1 – and Westerwald Farming Woman, 1912 – pl.3 – looks like a bible and suggests a shared culture or faith; only Shepherd 1913 – pl.2 – appears to be outside, in the open, and dressed for his occupation. Or maybe what they ‘do’ is to age and to get married (Country Bride and Groom, 1914, pl. 8) and have children (Three Generations of a Farming Family, pl.5) and so on. In pl.9, the Prizewinners‘ flag may stick up above the horizon, but they are definitely enclosed by it; their prop – the cup held by the scowly woman on the right – doesn’t seem to give them much pleasure.
Some of the people from the town may have props that relate to their occupation – the Pastrycook (fig.4) has a kitchen as his backdrop and wears a white coat as he demonstrates his spoon and bowl and glares down at us; the locksmith has his bundle of keys; others – the Postman delivering money orders – pl.34 – the Police Constable 1924 – pl.35 – the Customs Officials 1929 – pl.36 – have their uniforms to identify them.
Mostly though, the urban types wear suits but, as Berger points out suits with a cut that suggests that they fit well and are more comfortable than the country dwellers’ ‘best.’ They are pictured inside against a plain painted wall. Some of them are wearing clothes that mark them out as ‘different’ from the other middle class brain workers – The Sculptress, 1928 (pl.51) – is wearing coveralls that suggest her profession – but there is little else to differentiate one person’s activity from any of the others.
Wolfgang Brückle (2013) describes the overall effect of the pictures as ‘uncanny’; Max Kozlof (p185) say that ‘the viewer feels a slight chill when encountering the consistency of [Sander’s] engagement’. Perhaps, the slight discomfort I feel while looking at Sander’s pictures can be traced to the absense of judgement that seems to be present; certainly they seem to be looking at me with a similar air of appraisal as I am showing them; I wonder what they make of me as they stare back. I hope I am not found wanting.
Writing 40 years after John Berger, I am less able to judge the cut of a black and white suit; but it seems incredible that the Policeman’s amazing moustache is anything other than a joke, stuck on with spirit gum. Surely the Barman’s (fig.5) toupee fooled no one, even then. He has turned up in his rather nice three-piece suit and addressed the camera with a level, if appraising, stare. The photographer whose studio he’s chosen slips out the dark slide and opens the shutter; a day later the barman collects his prints and is happy, while Sander files the negative away for further consideration. ‘You are a barman, you say? Hmmm….”
And art – even if these pictures were ‘art’ in the first place – is, of course, as historically determined as everything else.
- Sander, A (1929) Face of our time. London, Schirmer Art Books.
- Berger, J (1979) The suit and the photograph. Collected in Understanding a photograph. Ed. Dyer, G (2013). London, Penguin Books.
- Wolfgang Brückle (2013) Face-Off in Weimar Culture: The Physiognomic Paradigm, Competing Portrait Anthologies, and August Sander’s ‘Face of Our Time’ in Tate Papers no.19 (Accessed: http://bit.ly/2ssAny7; 15/06/17)
- Kozloff, M (2007) The theatre of the face. London, Phaidon
- Rowe, D. C. (2013) August Sander and the Artists: Locating the Subjects of New Objectivity in Tate Papers no.19 (Accessed: http://bit.ly/2ssAny7; 15/06/17)
The photographs that illustrate this post were taken by August Sander in the first three decades of the 20th century. They are put online by various galleries and are used here within a purely educational context.