August Sander and his Germans

November 23, 2019 0 Comments
Painters: Otto Dix and his wife Martha

The National Museum in Cardiff is currently showing a generous selection of the portraits of August Sander, possibly the best-known large series of photographs produced in the first half of the twentieth century.  It’s hard to explain how it feels to walk slowly along the gallery of figures Sander captured.  Admiration at the brilliance of the photographer’s skill, certainly: Sander used a large format, old-fashioned camera, glass negatives and long exposures in order to capture faces and figures in minute detail (backgrounds are blurred out).   A frustrated curiosity about the sitters, most unnamed, who gaze impassively out at us.  And often an unease about the terrible fate of some of them – and the possible crimes of others.

Bricklayer (1928)

Sander was born in Herdorf, a mining town in what is now Rhineland-Palatinate, in 1876.  He was the son of a carpenter who worked for a mining company, and he learned the art of photography from the mine’s photographer.  Eventually, after spells in Linz and Cologne, he managed his own studio, and in 1910 conceived his life’s work, a never-ending project called People of the Twentieth Century.  In the early 1920s he encountered the Cologne Progressives, a group of radical artists who combined radical politics with an objectivist approach to their practice.  From this time up to the mid-1940s he took pictures of thousands of Germans, including many well-known artists but also many entirely ordinary people from all walks of life.  The pictures he arranged into seven distinct groups: ‘The farmer’, The skilled tradesman’, ‘The woman’, ‘Classes and professions’, ‘The artists’, ‘The city’, and ‘The last people’ (vagrants, outcasts, the ‘mentally deficient’ and others).

Philosopher (1913)

Sander’s adherence to what was called the New Objectivity movement in Germany, a reaction against the emotion-drenched styles of expressionism, is obvious in his treatment of his subjects.  Almost all are photographed face-on, and their faces are invariably expressionless.  They betray almost nothing of the inner life or character of their owners.  Finding little help in the face we move our gaze to other parts of the body, but again there are few clues: gestures are rare, and stances reveal little beyond the obvious.  Often Sander gives us attributes, like the hod of a bricklayer or the anvil of a blacksmith, but these seem mere badges, and again give us little additional help.  Many sitters lack names, and the titles of their portraits are often allotted generic descriptions, like ‘philosopher’ or ‘old farmer’.

Secretary at the West German Radio in Cologne (1931)
Member of the Hitler Youth (c.1941)

So it might seem that the portraits are impossible to penetrate.  But puzzlement wasn’t Sander’s aim.  His aim was to present his subjects as they were, for us as viewers to have a conversation with them: ‘I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects.  So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people’.  And again: ‘I never make a person look bad. They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.’  All the pictures are, in his view, self-portraits.  The camera is a mere mechanical mirror.

Yet in hindsight, knowing what we do about interwar Germany, and what it led to – Sander took the majority of his photographs in the Weimar and pre-War Nazi periods – we inevitably bring to the portraits an awareness of the social and political contexts of the subjects. That can’t help colour our view of them.  In a sense we invent the people we’re gazing at.  We draw our own conclusions from the neat haircut and cleansed stare of the Hitler Youth member, or the anxious face of the woman labelled ‘persecuted Jew’.  We may feel confident in our view of the nature of the ‘SS Officer’; less so, maybe, about the ‘varnisher’ (he looks as if he might be a rebel: might he be a Communist?).  Sander may have wrung all expression and content out of his work, but we insist on replacing it with our own.

William Jones Chapman, William Thomas, roller, Treforest (c1935)

In a talk that evening I showed a slide of two of the paintings made in the 1830s for Francis Crawshay of Merthyr Tydfil of the workers in the iron and tinplate works at Hirwaun and Treforest.  A member of the audience pointed out the similarity between them and Sander’s workers.  Exactly the same thought had occurred me earlier in the day.  Both artists are at unusual pains to record, in great detail, the industrial worker and his attributes.  But there is a difference: Crawshay’s painter names his subjects and, in his less skilled way, is anxious to give life and character to his subjects.

The first and last images in this exhibition are different from the rest.  The first is a self-portrait, in middle age.  Sander looks out at us in the usual unblinking way.  His receding hair is swept back.  He’s wearing an unassuming dark waistcoat and jacket, a white shirt with collar, and a small black tie.  Here I am, he seems to say plainly, and this is my work; accept it.

Death mask of Erich Sander (1944)

The last picture is not of a living person.  It’s a photograph of the death mask of Sander’s son Erich, a socialist who was arrested and imprisoned by the Nazis in 1934, and who died, still in prison, in 1944, after being denied medical treatment for a severe infection.  This image, the most impassive of all Sander’s works, yet contains within itself the horror of a whole age.  It also marked the effective end of Sander’s work.  He completed little after 1944.  The Nazis has already destroyed the plates for his 1929 volume of photos, Face of our time, which made his name, and his studio was destroyed in a bombing raid.  Many negatives that survived the War perished in an accidental fire in Cologne in 1946.

Two other temporary exhibitions of photos in the National Museum make an interesting counterpoint to Sander’s pictures.  Martin Parr’s photos of working people in Wales at play, in clubs, on the beach, or in the Royal Welsh Show.  They’re not isolated but interact socially, and laughter is the common theme.  The images are not in the severe black and white of Sander, but in (enhanced) colour.

The other show is by more recent German photographers, Bernd and Hilla Becher.  On the face of it their images share little with Sander’s.  They’re careful to expunge all human presence from their pictures of industrial buildings: pithead gear, cooling towers, blast furnaces, lime kilns and so on.  But they share Sander’s anxiety to capture detail in total clarity: many of their photos could pass for engineering drawings.  And the photos are grouped together by architectural type, just as Sander ordered his human subjects into predetermined categories.

Varnisher (c1930)
Painter: Heinrich Hoerle (1928)
Self-portrait (1925)

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