04/04/11Published in 'Professional Photographer' April 2011.
A couple of weeks ago I attended the opening of an exhibition of photographs by the German photographer, August Sander at the National Galleries of Scotland’s Dean Gallery in Edinburgh. There I was privileged to meet his grandson Gerd, who printed all 160 images in the early 1990’s. Besides the usual artists, academics, gallerists and glitterati that attend these events, I also met two friends, both highly respected professional photographers, there to pay enthusiastic homage to this remarkable man whose most important work began a century ago. Why should we be interested and what relevance does it have for us today?
Sander’s origins were humble. He was born in 1876 and his father was a carpenter working in the mining industry. He had no private wealth. Leaving school at 14 he worked at a local mining waste tip, at one point being enthralled by a local photographer who was working at the mine, and so his future direction and career were established. He spent his two years of military service (1897-99), working as a photographer’s assistant and various other photographic jobs before running a general commercial studio in Austria and then in Cologne from 1909, specialising in portraiture. So far then, nothing unusual and perhaps even today, many reading this can identify with Sander’s rather unremarkable early career progression.
He was however an extraordinary man. Although he had relatively little formal education, Sander immersed himself in literature and art and made friends and contacts within the cultural scene of Cologne. He occasionally exhibited his work in International Salons and won numerous prizes. While engaged in the day to day activities of his studio, around 1911 he began to plan a major project that was to be his life’s work.
Many highly regarded professional photographers like to set themselves personal projects. For some, photography is in the blood – it’s a lifestyle and not just a career – and to only produce work to the requirements of clients, editors or art directors has the potential to be enervating. Nobody however, has conceived a project of the scale and scope of Sander’s, for his plan was to document, to catalogue, the German people by type. He organised this immense project into seven distinct sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (which was to represent people on the fringes of society: the blind, disadvantaged, homeless and destitute). Sander photographed professionals, middle class families, farmers, students, war veterans, circus artists, beggars… and Nazis. This astonishing project was to be ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ and was to result in over 600 photographs. It was never completely finished, nor was it published in his lifetime.
In each photograph Sander had his subjects simply look into the lens of his plate camera, and hold still. He allowed his subjects to ‘speak’ for themselves, with quiet dignity. He didn’t impose an opinion, and in this respect, his work may be termed ‘objective’, and everybody, whether aristocrat or beggar was accorded the same respect. He neither elevated his subjects as did Karsh in the 50’s nor denigrated them as Parr sometimes did in the 80’s and 90’s. When his photographs were first displayed at the Cologne Art Union in 1927, he wrote:
“Nothing seemed more appropriate to me than to render through photography a picture of our times which is absolutely true to nature ... In order to see truth we must be able to tolerate it … whether it is in our favour or not ... So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.”
In contrast to today’s practitioners, possibly supported by an Arts Council grant, Sander’s work had no sponsors, endured the privations of recession during the 20’s, spanned two grim world wars, and extreme hostility from the Nazis. They destroyed the printing plates of his book ‘Face of Our Time’, published in 1929 and which comprised 60 photographs from what was to be the final project, because they felt that his ‘objective’ approach did not represent the German people as the master race they were attempting to promote.
Today, much is made of Sander’s ‘objective’ approach. His magnum opus was a typology according to the original meaning of the word – in that it is a process of cataloguing ‘types’. Sometimes we are told the name of his subject and sometimes merely their societal position: “Secretary”, “Coal heaver” etc., so that they are depersonalised, however it could not be termed a ‘photographic typology’ in the sense that we have come to understand the term from the Dusseldorf School. This began with the Bechers cataloguing of gasometers and winding engines and so on, and was extended to portraiture by artists like Thomas Ruff and Rineke Dijkstra, whose postmodern, deadpan, anaesthetic head studies have had a remarkably enduring influence on artist photographers today.
In many cases, Sander’s subjects are placed serially against similar plain backgrounds and these images seem quite coldly dispassionate, however a considerable proportion of his work demonstrates a subtlety and sophistication of picture-making, and a finely tuned humanist sensitivity.
In public conversation with the exhibition’s curator, Keith Hartley at the National Galleries of Scotland, Sander’s grandson commented that “it’s not about photography, it’s about the idea… and Sander’s work is not about making beautiful photographs it’s about documenting an idea. And stylistically if anyone influenced him it was Rembrandt for the lighting specifically.” In other words, and as Keith Hartley commented, the implication is that Sander’s was one of the first conceptual photographic works. And yet the visual evidence of the work itself does not suggest this; aren’t all projects initially the result of an idea – a concept? Having said that, Sander rejected pictorialist ‘fuzzygraphs’ and championed ‘straight’ photography, much as Paul Strand did in the USA in the 1920’s:
“I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects.”
Sander worked with 5x4 and 5x7 cameras and most of the images were made on location rather than in the studio. Generally he made only one or two exposures of each subject – perhaps understandable given the weight of the glass plates that he used.
Why is it that despite huge advances in technology over the last century, the standard of picture making has not necessarily improved? It is so much easier to produce technically proficient images – anybody can do it now to a certain standard – and yet we still look in awe at the intensity, intelligence, vision and beauty of some of these early practitioners. Its logistically much easier to take pictures, but…
Here’s Sander again in a radio lecture in 1931:
“One can snap a shot or take a photograph; to “snap a shot” means reckoning with chance, and to “take a photograph” means working with contemplation – that is to comprehend something, or to bring an idea from a complex to a consummate composition… By means of seeing, observing and thinking… we can capture world history… by means of the expressive potential of photography”
What would Sander think now, 47 years after his death, of the huge impact of digital, where it is possible to take dozens (hundreds?) of images of one subject with the possibility that without serious prior ‘contemplation’ none of them will be any good? Better to take one image as a result of “seeing, observing and thinking” than a hundred without.
Sander had an immense influence on most of the major portrait photographers of last century, especially Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Diane Arbus. Each of them worked commercially, while following Sander’s example and engaged in ‘personal projects’. For example Penn’s ‘Small Trades’, Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ and Arbus’ portraits of people on the margins of society. None of these projects, however, had the scale and ambition of Sander’s.
Avedon for example, must have been aware of – and been influenced by – Sander’s portrait of the ‘Bricklayer’, especially since it was one of several of his pictures selected by Edward Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art’s seminal, blockbuster show ‘The Family of Man’ in 1955. A portrait of dignity and strength, not least because one can only imagine the weight of those bricks as he waited, apparently effortlessly with hand casually on hip (so essential for the composition), while Sander composed, focused and exposed.
And what about the portrait of the ‘Girl in the Fairground Caravan’? If it wasn’t for the precision of crop and composition, it could be an Arbus. Most of Sander’s subjects appear to have an air of melancholy – and tension – as if they are presaging or reflecting on the tragedy of the German people in that period. The conscious positioning of the girl’s hand on the key in the lock, looks at first glance as if she is bleeding onto the door…
If Avedon and Arbus, among many, were influenced by Sander, in turn each of these influenced countless of later generations of photographers. Some, like my two friends at the Sander exhibition opening, drew their inspiration directly from the progenitor of them all.