What Defines a Portrait?
August Sander — Dean Gallery, Edinburgh 12th February - 10th July 2011
Review by Jonathan Long
August Sander is a ubiquitous presence in histories of photography, studies of the photographic portrait, and cultural histories of the Weimar Republic, and his work is widely reproduced in popular publications. This omnipresence can lead to a sense that we basically know what Sander is about. This exhibition, presenting almost 200 images that have been acquired on long-term loan, largely confirms and extends our knowledge of Sander the social typologist, but also manages to spring a few surprises.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is People of the Twentieth Century, a vast project on which Sander was engaged for four decades. Although Sander did not use the term People of the Twentieth Century until 1925, many of the images that came to be part of the project date from before 1914, while the last of them was taken in the early 1950s. The majority of the images, though, come from the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), and constitute an extensive catalogue of social types: the subjects function not as individuals but as representatives of their class, profession, race, or social position otherwise defined: as political prisoners, persecuted minorities, blind, congenitally ill.
Sander organised his typology into seven groups, each subdivided into portfolios concentrating on a relatively narrow social phenomenon. The structure of the typology is also the structure of the main part of this exhibition. Sander’s categories are somewhat arbitrary, and the extent to which they really have the power to function as a visual sociology of the Weimar Republic is questionable. But the compelling appeal of the images themselves resides not in their participation in a typology but in their richness of detail and their profound humanity. There is a thoroughgoing attempt to encode class visually: the bourgeoisie are photographed near their houses, defining them in terms of property, while skilled tradesmen are photographed in the workplace and holding the tools of their trade, defining them in terms of their labour. Manual workers are shot frontally, which had long been a convention for representing those deemed culturally unsophisticated. Industrialists and intellectuals, on the other hand, are shot in three-quarter profile, suggesting subjective autonomy and self-possession. Yet so many of the images transcend the taxonomic structures that would turn them into mere representatives of a social type. The fierce pride of the master mason, the blacksmith, and the pastry cook, the striking appearance of the Secretary at West German Radio, the androgynous Painter’s Wife, the sinister mug-shot of the Public Prosecutor – these and many more are fascinating for their own sake, not because of their position in a typology, and suggest that Sander can be seen very differently if the focus on the grand edifice is replaced by careful engagement with individual images. One effect of this might be to emphasise the diachronic dimension of Sander’s project. While its intrinsic tendency is towards the synchronic, there is also a powerful visual history recorded here, not least in the images from Group VII: The City. We see, for example, a group of street musicians and bystanders in Cologne, a Corpus Christi procession, a Red Front demonstration, and a photograph of children in the Schemmergasse, all testifying to a form of ethnographic investigation that concentrates on social practices rather than individual embodiments of social categories.
A small section of the exhibition is devoted to studies of human hands, alerting us to the importance of hands in Sander’s portraits. The more significant surprises, though, lie in two portfolios that pre- and postdate the main body of People. The Stammappe (Portfolio of Archetypes), though integrated into People, is bewildering. Twelve peasant portraits are captioned in what appear to be familiar ways, with titles like The Philosopher, or The Fighter or Revolutionary. But the subject of this latter image is a wrinkled old man with a dense white beard, looking straight into the camera with an expression of profound weariness, holding a book and a pair of folded spectacles in his lap. His female counterpart on an identically-labelled image, is a portly old woman in a thick black shawl and woollen headscarf, looking at the camera with a puckered face while seated on a chair that has been placed in a snow-covered field. Both sitters are clearly peasants, so what do the captions actually mean, and what kind of bizarre typology might be constructed here?
The other portfolio, The Siebengebirge, represents a remarkable turn to nature for the ageing Sander. More remarkable still, perhaps, is that Sander’s main concern is nature writ small. There are two images that explicitly refer to German Romanticism, the one showing mountain-tops emerging above the low-lying cloud, the other a mountain view with a classic Rückenfigur in the foreground, viewed from the back as he gazes at the panorama like something out of Caspar David Friedrich. But the Rückenfigur, no longer heroic, has spread his picnic on the ground. Elsewhere in the portfolio the filigree detail of flowers and foliage, or shape and texture of a toadstool, or the staggering complexity and quasi-abstract patterning of anonymous unmanaged woodland are the focus of attention. This, then, is Sander’s response to Nazism, its perversion of society, and its debasement of the Romantic tradition.
This is a highly impressive exhibition. It may not seek to revolutionise our understanding of Sander. But it does unsettle our assumptions just a little, and it reminds us of the scale of Sander’s achievement. This is no mean achievement in itself.