August Sander's Mission: Impossible
August Sander was on show at the Gallery of Photography, Dublin, 1997
Review by Stephen Bull
The desire to classify is strange and strong. During the 1920's August Sander began his personal mission to create a 'portrait atlas' surveying the whole of German society. In 1929, sixty of these photographs were published as The Face of Our Time; a microcosm of his much larger forthcoming work People of the 20th Century, but the war put paid to Sander's grand plans.
Although Sander embarked on new photographic projects after the war, it is primarily his remarkable series of people that continues to be exhibited and discussed today. This body of work is remarkable in that Sander so steadfastly attempted to achieve the impossible. His use of photography to comprehensively categorise the various strata of German society represents an extraordinary disavowal of both photography's capabilities and the nature of German society itself during the 20's and 30's.
Like many of those involved in what is now regarded as the 'New Objectivity' period in Weimar Germany, Sander believed that photography could express a new vision, a way of objectively and truthfully depicting reality. In his introduction to The Face of Our Time, Alfred Döblin stresses Sander's scientific approach to delineating the specific groups of citizens comprising Weimar society. Yet Sander's pictures partially follow the old traditions of portraiture employed by the emerging middle-classes since the 18th century to assert their own particular individuality. Discussing Sander's work in his famous 1931 essay A Short History of Photography, Walter Benjamin notes that, with the developments in photography, the way people were depicted underwent a transition. The human face appearing on film was, he argues, no longer a portrait. What was it? Amongst the anonymous postman, pastry cook and grammar-school girl that Sander portrays in his photographs, a tycoon, a composer and a doctor are named or given initials to identify them. There is a tension here as the images are pulled from the old to the new, between the generic 'type' and the individual portrait.
Sander's work actually attests to the inability of the objective photograph alone to tell us much at all, even as part of a series. The intended 'prologue', to People of the 20th Century was to have been Archetypes. Here Sander uses pictures of farm workers from the Westerwald area, where he grew up, to demonstrate how the various facets of humanity can all be discerned within a single grouping of people. One section presents four seated elderly women wearing shawls. They are labelled: The woman of the soil, The philosopher, The fighter, or revolutionary and The sage. The woman of the soil sits and looks at us, hands clasped around a book in her lap. The sage sits and looks at us, hands clasped around a book in her lap. Sander could have swapped over the captions and we would be none the wiser. The few minor differences; the former woman's furrowed brow and the latter's wide-eyed expression, make little difference. On a simplistic physiognomic level, the furrowed brow could just as easily suggest the thoughtfulness of a sage and the wide-eyed expression the 'naivete' of a woman of the soil.
Perhaps there is something suspicious too about those folks depicted in the principal mass of Sander's project. Many of them could almost be character actors trying out roles for their portfolio. The Trade-Unionist sleeves rolled up to his elbows, poses dramatically in front of a white backdrop. Others display basic props, a Postman for registered mail pretends to fill in a form, an Unemployed man waits, cap in hand, a Barrister holds up his papers. Rarely do we see these people actually acting out their roles. There is a peculiarly static concordance to the nation we are shown. Everyone has their part to play, from beggars to bankers. Even a group of revolutionaries are absorbed into the harmonic structure that Sander imposes. It is as if this is the way the world always was and how it will always be; a society as rigid as the poses of the men and women who make it up.
But of course Weimar Germany was a far from stable society. In fact it was in a process of radical transition, The First World War had left more than half a million soldiers disabled, over a million children orphaned and many millions homeless and out of work. At the same time, the old world, the people 'close to nature' that Sander photographed in the Westerwald, those at the root of his society, were disappearing and being replaced by industrialists and intellectuals. Sander's stubborn illusion of frozen stability may have come from his own stated need to "hold fast the history of the world". He wanted to stop time, construct his own world and preserve it through his photographs; three wishes that have fuelled much documentary work.
The desire to classify (and ossify) the society of the time in a harmonious manner could seem blinkered and illogical, yet it may be partly understood in terms of Freud's idea of the uncanny. The word translates into the German unheimlich, itself derived from heimlich, or homely. One of the aspects of the uncanny, Freud contends, is anxiety produced by the unknown, the changing, the new. August Sander's impossible mission could stem from a desire to apply the familiar genre of portraiture to the new and evolving medium of photography. This, in turn, is used to create a comfortable, homely society, instead of an unheimlich nation in a state of flux.