November 17: People are shaped by what they eat, by the air and light in which they move, by the work they do or do not do, and also by the peculiar ideology of their class. One can learn more about these ideologies—perhaps more than could be learnt from long-winded reports or accusing comments—merely by glancing at the pictures of the wealthy middle class and their children…[the] tensions of our time become clear…
So wrote novelist Alfred Döblin in his preface to his Face of Our Time (Antlitz der Zeit), which was published in 1929. The book was a major photographic survey of ‘the fools’ paradise’, Weimar society of the first quarter of the twentieth century (the compelling subject of Döblin’s novel Berlin Alexanderplatz). The photographer was August Sander, who was born on this date in 1876.
Sander is justly famous and so not the usual material for this blog in which I intend to explore the outer, or neglected, edges of the photographic universe. However, there are aspects of his work and his ideas that are still debated and are well worth a look at here.
I bought my copy of The Thames and Hudson August Sander: Photographer Extraordinary when photo books were rare, while I was a photography student in 1973, working evenings as a cleaner in a city building above a large bookshop. I coveted that book, flipping through the pages every evening while waiting to start work. One of the many pictures I felt drawn to was the intense Communist working students 1926 (above), in which Sander demonstrates an extraordinary facility in making that most difficult of all portraits, of a group. Not only that, but in the era of The Dismissal, my political sympathies were with them. So I removed the dust jacket of the expensive big hardback and hid it, claiming a discount at the counter for ‘damaged stock’ in order to be able to afford it…though that’s not quite shoplifting, I still feel guilty. The precious book guided my own large format portrait photography of workers and Luna Park visitors for my Diploma of Photography and thus I came to understand what he meant when Sander wrote in 1951:
A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… I cannot show [my work] in a single photo, nor in two or three; after all, they could as well be snapshots. Photography is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse.
That was his achievement; a vast survey of his own society. He came to it unconsciously. In the late 1890s he began, without any overriding concept, when he made pictures of the lumpen farmers of his native Westerwald near Cologne for a living, then continued as he opened a commercial portrait studio in Linz from 1905 till 1909 which he advertised, claiming:
…to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face. Thus I can offer to produce expressive, characteristic likenesses that completely represent the nature of the subject.
Finally, he prospered as a portrait photographer in Linz, in 1910 he moved his family to Cologne. Struggling to get started there he expanded his business into the outlying farming districts of Westerwald of his youth. He remained in Cologne till he retreated back into the countryside to escape the bombings and other ravages of World War II that threatened the thousands of portraits he had made, and which destroyed a large portion.
As a photographer, Sander worked with individuals, mostly as a professional, for payment. By the turn of the century tastes in portraiture were changing; people were no longer content with the potted palms, painted backdrops and props of his photographer’s studio and were more interested in being photographed at home or in their workplace or out of doors. Equipment too had advanced enough to make it easy for Sander to be mobile enough to work ‘on location’, to satisfy the trend.
As he advertised, his task was to concentrate on portraying the individual, or the individual amongst their family or colleagues. After the First World War and in the midst of Germany’s runaway inflation, he was in financial distress like the rest of the population. He is sympathetic to his subjects and discovers beauty in their individuality, but the question needs to be asked; why did he photograph members of the growing Nazi party?
Sander was blessed however with a special perspective; born into a family of modest means in Herdorf, outside Cologne, a mixed mining and farming region, in which Sander’s father found work as a part-time carpenter in the mines while running his own farm, and having sold a small coal mine, enjoyed some capital. He valued technology and supported his son’s early interest in photography. This was a background out of which Sander developed his own concept of society that is the scaffolding of a book of his photographs.
What emerged in the process of designing the book was a taxonomy, which Walter Benjamin describes in his A Short History of Photography originally published in Literarische Welt of 18.9., 25.9. and 2.10.1931. It is his emphasis on Sander’s fascination with physiognomy and ‘type’ that reveals the link in the photographer’s thinking with nineteenth century ‘scientific’ ideas of class heirarchies, psychology and of genetics. Again, to some these ideas seem rather close to those of the National Socialists’ own and make the inclusion of Nazis amongst Sander’s portraits seem sinister.
‘Sander starts with the peasant, the earthbound man, and takes the reader through all the strata and occupations, up to on the one hand the highest representatives of civilisation and on the other down to imbeciles’. It was not as a scholar, advised by race theorists or social researchers, that the author undertook his enormous task, but, in the publisher’s words, ‘as the result of immediate observation’. It is indeed unprejudiced observation, bold and at the same time delicate, very much in the spirit of Goethe’s remark: ‘There is a delicate form of the empirical which identifies itself so intimately with its object that it thereby becomes theory’. Accordingly it is quite proper that an observer like Doblin should light upon precisely the scientific aspects of this opus and point out: ‘Just as there is a comparative anatomy which enables one to understand the nature and history of organs, so here the photographer has produced a comparative photography, thereby gaining a scientific standpoint which places him beyond the photographer of detail.’ It would be lamentable if economic circumstances prevented the further publication of this extraordinary corpus. However, there is an even surer way of encouraging the publisher apart from this fundamental reason. Work like Sander’s can assume an unsuspected actuality overnight. Shifts in power, to which we are now accustomed, make the training and sharpening of a physiognomic awareness into a vital necessity. Whether one is of the right or the left, one will have to get used to being seen in terms of one’s provenance. And in turn, one will see others in this way too. Sander’s work is more than a picture-book, it is an atlas of instruction.
Indeed, Sander’s photography is ‘immediate observation’, but not in the sense that street photography is. Even after the Leica 35mm camera had become available in the 1920s he wrote in 1925 in reply to Prof. Dr. Erich Stenger, “I use Zeiss lenses, an orthochromatic plate with corresponding light filter, and clear fine grained glossy paper. I make my photos on 12 x 16.5cm or 13 x 18cm (5×7 inch) plates, enlarging them to 18×24 (7×9 inches).” (August Sander. 1999, Taschen, Köln ; London. p. 108). This is a large format and he used glass plates rather than film, making the gear heavy, cumbersome to transport on foot or on a bicycle which his means of transport in the countryside. The process of making a portrait with this equipment is not spontaneous and many of his images show movement in flags and foliage due to long exposures, while his subjects remain stock still, whether facing the camera or in profile. Posing his subjects required their cooperation, then their patience while he was composing and focussing in the ground glass hidden under a dark cloth, then their serious composure and consciousness of being portrayed as he stood beside the camera holding a bulb release. The subjects would not often hear the the Zeiss leaf shutter’s subtle ‘tick’ as the exposure was made, so would have to remain still for quite a time. The experience is entirely more demanding and engaged than we are used to in the digital age.
Sander kept revising and changing the order of each portfolio of his classifications up until his death in 1964. Though he wrote nothing of his political sympathies, his oldest son Erich was arrested in 1934 for distributing leaflets that August assisted in printing, and he died in prison ten years later from an untreated ruptured appendix. Two years after his son was imprisoned, the unsold copies of Face of Our Time along with all the printing plates were confiscated by the Nazis and destroyed. The Communist students in the photograph above were among many leftist visitors to Sander’s studio. He was closely involved with the radical left art group the ‘Cologne Progressives’, whose works were conscripted into the infamous Degenerate Art exhibition that toured Germany in 1937–8, and he displayed their work and portraits of them in his studio.
In the 1930s Sander also made passport photos for Jewish people fleeing the country and later assembled these, along with images of Erich, and pictures of other political prisoners photographed and smuggled by Erich from jail, in a separate portfolio within People of the Twentieth Century.
Given these facts of his life it is clear that Sander’s sympathies were not with the Nazis he photographed, but that their inclusion in his ambitious and hard-won life’s work was out of a commitment to including the full social gamut in People of the Twentieth Century.
It is a tribute to his singleness of purpose and clarity of vision that Young Soldier (Westerwald) 1945 is at once so sensitive to the individual and yet chillingly representative of ruthless and mindless German militarism.
Is this not an apt time to look again at August Sander’s document to consider what it means in our own era?