Study Sander’s portraits in very close detail, making notes as you go.
Look at how his subjects are positioned in relation to each other or their environment. Are they facing the camera or looking away? What, if any, props does Sander use? Do these props seem relevant or are they strange? What physical stance does the subject adopt?
Detail was extremely important to August Sander and the background in his portraits was never left to chance. Study the backgrounds of Sander’s portraits very closely and reflect upon what you see. Where does the subject sit in relation to the background? If location-based, does the head sit above or below the horizon? Has the background been deliberately blurred through the use of a wider aperture and therefore shorter depth of field? Does the background offer any meaning or context to the portrait?
Make a portrait of someone you know, paying very close attention to what is happening in the background of the shot. Be very particular about how you pose the subject and what you choose to include in the photograph. Ideally, the background should tell the viewer something about the subject being photographed.
Reflect upon how successful this project was in your learning log or blog.I&P p.26
[20Aug20 I&P p.26] Sander’s fortunes, financial, reputational and photographic, fluctuated throughout his life. Born the son of a carpenter at a German iron mine who also ran a smallholding, Sander (as was normal for local children) worked part time on the mine’s slag heap when not at school (Hacking, 2012, p.243). Nevertheless, after assisting a photographer at the mine (possibly Heinrich Schmeck, ibid) had triggered his interest, with the help of his father and uncle, Sander bought a ’13x8cm camera, an Aplanat lens and a tripod’ (ibid.) and built a darkroom on the family’s farm.
After national service, Sander moved to Linz in Austria got a job in a photographic studio, taking ownership in 1902, the year he married Anna. Over the next few years, he built his reputation, mostly with landscape photographs and in 1909 he sold the Linz studio and a while later opened another in Cologne. Although his work was recognised, his studio was not busy and he travelled the surrounding area by bicycle seeking clients for portraits (ibid. p 244). This, Hacking suggests, was where his great series began. Interrupted by conscription in WW1 (during which Anna kept the portrait business going), after the war, he continued gathering his collection of portraits and in 1927 exhibited People of the 20th Century in Cologne. This led to his 1929 book Face of Our Time, of which more later.
Sander’s portraits did not find favour with the Nazi party, whose influence and then control was growing (this was not helped by his son Erich’s anti-Nazi political activity, for which he was arrested and later died in prison) and copies of the book and the printing plates were destroyed. During WW2, Sander lost his studio in a bombing raid and in 1946 most of his print and negative archive to a fire.
After the war, Sander turned back to landscapes and also started a new project, studies of parts of the body, some cropped from his earlier portraits. He maintained his reputation through participating in exhibitions and this was boosted in 1952 by a visit from Edward Steichen who acquired some prints that later appeared in the famous Family of Man exhibition of 1955. Sander died in 1964 following a stroke.
Returning to the portrait series, the main subject of this essay, by the time of the 1927 exhibition, Sander had formulated his seven categories of person, translated in Stepan (2008, p. 53) as
The Farmer, The Artisan, The Women, The Estates [Classes and Professions], The Artists, The Big City, The Last Men.
Stepan suggests (although the connection is not apparent) that this was based on,
a then-popular doctrine of temperaments, in which people were classified as earthbound, philosophical, impetuous/revolutionary or wise. However he did not pursue this in his portfolios …Stepan, p.53
Sander adopted a new aesthetic for the portrait series: for his earlier landscapes and portraits, he had gone along with the pictorialist tradition of manipulating the negative for a more painterly effect, but his new approach is described by Jeffrey (2008, p. 74) as printing ‘portraits in the manner previously reserved for architecture – where clarity was at a premium’. This was aligned to the New Objectivity movement †.
In a 1927 essay (published in Johnson, 2004, p. 144) Sander announced the portraits project and his approach,
photography … can reproduce things with impressive beauty, or even with cruel accuracy, but it can also be outrageously deceptive … we should pass down to our fellow men and to posterity [a view of] things as they are and not as they should or could be …I hate nothing more that sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.Sander, 1927 in Johnson (2004) p. 144
The book showed 60 portraits, from various categories, made between 1910 and 1928. Jeffrey (ibid. p.78) states (without providing citations for his quotations, but presumably they come from Sander) that the intention for the project overall was to,
start from the earthbound man and woman (peasant farmers from the Westerwald), and then proceed by degrees to ‘the highest peak of civilisation’ and then ‘downward according to the most subtle classifications to the idiot’.
I have found it difficult to apply Sander’s categories these to some of the portraits and so I have used my equivalents:
rural, worker, female, middle class, artist, manager, outsider and an additional category, child
My edition of the book (Sander, 2003) has supplementary information that helps with this, for example, image #9 is titles Prizewinners, 1927, but the book adds, “Prizewinners from a country choral society”, enabling the classification of rural.
Some classifications remain difficult:
#25 The Revolutionaries include Erich Müsham, according to Wikipedia, ‘German-Jewish antimilitarist anarchist essayist, poet and playwright’ — an evaluation of ‘middle class’ seems hardly sufficient.
#26 The age of the students is difficult to judge. They include Sander’s son, Erich on the left born in 1903 and so in his early 20s. Thus class = mid.
#31 The title in the book is Young Mother, Middle-class. I have used class = female rather than middle class.
#38 Title Young Businessman, hardly a captain of industry (unlike #45), but class = manager.
#59 and #60 Titles Redundant Seaman and Unemployed. Class = worker.
The abbreviations and meanings used in the table are:
Category: mid = middle class; mng = manager
Format: P = portrait format; L = landscape format.
Count: the number of people in the photograph including babies.
Posture: sit = sitting; stand = standing (obvs.); mix = >1 subjects in >1 postures; lean = leaning; nk = cannot tell; side = the subject is positioned side-on to the camera; * = the subject is not looking at the camera.
Length: FL = full length; 3Q = three-quarter length; HS = head and shoulders; WU = waist-up. A plus or minus sign qualifies the length, so FL- might mean the feet are not seen, HS+ might extend to the chest. This is an inexact judgment, at some point 3Q+ meets FL-.
Background: o/f = it looks as though the background is purposely and purposefully out of focus; ext/int = external/internal. Note that it is sometimes difficult to tell whether it is an exterior or interior photograph.
The exercise asks,
Look at how his subjects are positioned in relation to each other or their environment. Are they facing the camera or looking away? What, if any, props does Sander use? Do these props seem relevant or are they strange? What physical stance does the subject adopt?I&P p.26
… the background in his portraits was never left to chance ‡. Study the backgrounds of Sander’s portraits very closely and reflect upon what you see. Where does the subject sit in relation to the background? If location-based, does the head sit above or below the horizon? Has the background been deliberately blurred through the use of a wider aperture and therefore shorter depth of field? Does the background offer any meaning or context to the portrait?
‡ I do not think that this assertion is supported by an examination of the images. It is certainly true of some of the better-known subjects, such as #16 Pastrycook and it is noticeable, for example, in #44 Doctor and #45 Industrialist, but at least 15 of the 60 photographs have a nondescript nearby wall as background, sometimes light, sometimes dark. In some of these the subject’s shadow is faintly discernible, indicating proximity.
Non-æsthetic, purely numerical and statistical analyses of the image reveal:
- Category: 10 rural; 17 middle class; 11 workers; 3 females; 5 children; 3 managers; 11 artists.
- Format: 7 landscape, 53 portrait. The 7 in landscape format (nos. 5, 12, 18, 19, 22, 26, 31) are all groups and the choice seems to be practical rather than æsthetic (for example, none is to include extra background detail).
- Body Count: 37 images have a single subject; 13 have two, then three with 3, 2 each with four and five, and 1 each with six, nine and twelve. That last is #29, Protestant Clergyman who is surrounded by boys, so there is arguably a single main subject.
- Posture: In a few cases (nos. 2, 33 and 60) it is not possible to be certain whether the subject is sitting or standing. In nos. 4, 17 and 19 both are present. Of the remaining 55 images, in 28 the subject(s) are standing, 25 sitting and 1 (no. 28) leaning rather unnaturally. All the artists except the pianist (no. 53)are sitting.
- Gaze: Most of the subjects are looking directly at the camera. In four (33, 46, 56 and 60) the subjects are facing away from the camera; in two (51 and 55) and in no. 12, one subject is looking at the camera, the other not.
- Length: noting the comments above on definitions, four (2, 33, 41, 57) are head and shoulders; two (45 and 47) are waist-up; 31 are three-quarter length; and 23 are full-length.
- Background: I have taken issue above with the course material’s statement on backgrounds. The images in which I would say that Sander has noticeably crafted the backgrounds are Shepherd (#2), Young Farmers (#6), perhaps Prizewinners (#9), Teacher (#11), Pastrycook (#16), Worker’s family (#19), Odd-job man, plain but uniquely black (#23), Middle-class family, where the daughter has an unusual, ungainly stance (#30), Young Mother (#31), Art Scholar (#43), Doctor (#44), Tycoon (#46), Pianist (#53), Redundant Seaman (#59) and perhaps Unemployed (#60). That is more than I thought when I started this section, but only 25% of the total, the same as are just plain. A plain background is, of course, a choice, but does not suggest the diligence which the cmat alludes to.
I would also say that in no. 36 Customs Officials, the background is poorly judged.
Sander’s usage of backgrounds and horizons in some images are worth noting.
The defocussed backgrounds of #2 and #31 enhance the image by emphasising the subject, while indicating their environment. This contrasts with #4 where the trees are a distraction and # 36 where the obtrusive archway and patches of light in the background draw attention away from the subject. #6 is perhaps the best example in the book of Sander’s use of the horizon, which pulls the viewer’s gaze to the farmers’ faces: Hacking (2012, p.301) writes of this and also the farmers’ dirty boots which detract from the dapper images they are trying to convey and ‘reveal their farming roots’.
Of the indoor portraits, #44 and #46 are cases of defocussed interior detail, the large bottles conjuring the notion of medical research with the doctor and the elaborate door and wall decoration behind the tycoon denoting opulence. The contrast to be drawn here is with #38, one of the plain backgrounds with a hint of shadow, mentioned above.
The Tycoon #46 deserves further attention because it is a true outlier within the book with the subject seated and facing away from the camera.
|3||Farming woman||rural||P||1||sit||3Q||o/f interior|
|6||Young farmers||rural||P||3||stand||FL||o/f exterior|
|7||Country girls||rural||P||2||stand||FL||o/f exterior|
|8||Bride and groom||rural||P||2||stand||FL-||wall + tree|
|12||Citizens||mid||L||2||sit *||3Q||garden wall|
|15||Interior decorator||worker||P||1||sit||3Q||o/f interior|
|17||Mother and daughter||female||P||2||mix||FL-||o/f exterior|
|19||Worker’s family||worker||L||9||mix||FL||o/f exterior|
|22||Workers’ Council||worker||L||6||stand||FL||urban exterior|
|25||Revolutionaries||mid *||P||3||sit||FL||exterior wall|
|26||Students||mid *||L||4||sit||3Q||interior wall|
|29||Clergyman plus||mid||P||12||stand||3Q||exterior wall|
|31||Young mother||female *||L||2||sit||FL||o/f exterior|
|33||Youth leader||mid||P||1||nk, side||HS||interior wall|
|36||Customs Officers||work||P||2||stand||FL||ext. archway|
|43||Art scholar||artist||P||1||sit||FL-||panelled wall|
|44||Doctor||mid||P||1||stand||3Q||o/f medical equ.|
|45||Industrialist||mng||P||1||sit||WU||o/f interior wall|
|46||Tycoon||mng||P||1||sit, side||FL-||o/f interior door|
|49||Architect||artist||P||1||sit *||3Q||dark wall|
|51||Sculptress||artist||P||1||sit *||3Q||interior wall|
|55||Tenor||artist||P||1||sit *||3Q||interior wall|
|56||Bohemians||artisan||P||2||sit, side||3Q||interior wall|
|59||Seaman||work *||P||1||stand||FL||ext. bridge|
|60||Unemployed||work *||P||1||nk, side||3Q||ext. wall|
† The New Objectivity movement is described by Emma Lewis (2017, pp. 60-61) as,
an approach by artists and writers in Germany, characterised by its impulse to depict the modern world as it is, without romanticism or artistic effect. In photography, this meant harnessing the camera’s ability to capture the subject with absolute precision.Lewis, 2017, pp. 60-61)
Lewis names its original and principal exponents as Albert Renger-Patzsch with his still lifes, then Aenne Biermann and Karl Blossfeldt (mentioned in the cmat re. typology). She notes Sander’s adoption of the approach and that the Weimar Republic ended the movement but not before its influence had spread abroad to catalyse the New Vision and Modernism.
There is no denying Sander’s abilities as a photographer, both in landscape and in portraits. That said, while his portraits might have been revolutionary in their time, 90 years ago, and Sander’s contribution might have been instrumental in introducing objectivity to portraiture, many of the images in Face of Our Time now seem unremarkable. There are some great photographs in the group that remain rightly famous, notably Young Farmers and Pastrycook, and Sander was a key figure in the development of the craft.
Regarding backgrounds, Sander’s are not particularly remarkable. He sometimes uses defocussed backgrounds effectively: he often uses plain backgrounds that are bland, when compared to Avedon’s stark white backgrounds that isolate and emphasise the subject and the exaggerated angles of Penn’s eccentric grey corner sets.
I&P Exc 1.2 References
artnet.com (n.d.) August Sander [online]. artnet.com. Available from http://www.artnet.com/artists/august-sander/ [Accessed 20 August 2020].
famousphotographers.net (n.d.) August Sander [online]. famousphotographers.net. Available from https://www.famousphotographers.net/august-sander [Accessed 20 August 2020].
Hacking, J (2012) Lives of the great photographers. London: Thames & Hudson.
Jeffrey, I. (2008) How to read a photograph. Jeffrey London: Thames & Hudson.
Johnson, B. (ed.) (2004) Photography speaks: 150 photographers on their art. New York: Aperture Foundation.
Lange, S. (2019) August Sander. London: Thames & Hudson.
Lewis, E. (2017) …isms: understanding photography. Brighton: Iqon editions.
moma.org (n.d.) August Sander [online]. moma.org. Available from https://www.moma.org/artists/5145 [Accessed 20 August 2020].
Sander, A (2003) August Sander, Face of Our Time. Köln: Schirmer.
Stepan, P. (2008) 50 Photographers you should know. Munich: Prestel.
tate.org.uk (n.d.) August Sander [online]. tate.org.uk. Available from https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/august-sander-5319[Accessed 20 August 2020].
Wikipedia (2020) Erich Mühsam [online]. wikipedia.org. Available from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erich_M%C3%BChsam[Accessed 20 August 2020].