The Germans came surprisingly late to photography. Possibly because of the dominance of the field by the French and the British—not to mention the Americans—Germany did not produce a single especially memorable photographic artist or image until near the end of the nineteenth century, when Wilhelm Plüschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden separately ventured to the Mediterranean to pose naked young men, sometimes with Pan horns, in light-classical motifs. Around that same time, two large projects, har-bingers of the next century, were quietly beginning to germinate entirely outside the realm of art photography as it was then understood. One of these could hardly have been farther from the public eye: Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), an apprentice drawing teacher from the Hartz Mountains, began in the 1890s to systematically photograph plant forms—buds, blossoms, stalks, leaves—against plain backgrounds as a reference for artists and craftsmen working under the sway of the fashion for vegetal designs that was about to culminate in Art Nouveau. The pictures stressed the graphic and sculptural qualities of the plants, defamiliarizing them nearly to the point of making them appear artificial, and were startlingly lucid and terse in their rigor.
Although a few of Blossfeldt’s photographs were published uncredited in pedagogical texts starting around 1896, they were not collected until 1928, as Urformen der Kunst (in English the following year as Art Forms in Nature). The book was an international sensation. Although the particular aesthetic that had given rise to it had dissipated, it heralded another: the use of photography for sober, methodical cataloging. This dovetailed nicely with the New Objectivity then ascendant in Germany, and now it can be seen as the principal current in German photography straight through to our day, when Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Struth, among others, continue to effect the sublime through ostensibly repetitive series of mute, affectless images.
Just as Blossfeldt was exposing his first plates with his homemade box camera, a teenager from the Rhineland named August Sander (1876– 1964) was taking some of the earliest pictures that would figure in his life’s work, the monumental People of the Twentieth Century. Whereas Blossfeldt was modest in his ambitions, conceiving of his pictures only as means to an end, the scale of Sander’s project was so overwhelming that it might seem as if it could only have been hatched in the nineteenth century, although Sander did not articulate his scheme until the mid-1920s. His plan was to photograph every sort of human being, making a composite portrait of the age in which he lived.
Sander began his professional life as a pit-boy in the mine where his father was a carpenter, and while there met a photographer hired by its owners to document the place. He acquired a camera by 1892 (the date of the earliest photo in his project), persuaded his father to help him build a darkroom in their home, and pursued photography as a hobby until he completed his military service at the end of the decade. After a period of apprenticeship he became a professional studio photographer, based for most of his career in Cologne, although the recession that accompanied the First World War caused him to work for some years as an itinerant portrait photographer. The pictures that went into People of the Twentieth Century were drawn in part from his studio work, in part from private commissions, and in part from work he did for his own pleasure.
The scope of Sander’s project may have been influenced by the group of progressive artists he associated with in Cologne in the 1920s, but he had long been photographing “types” that interested him as he roamed the Rhineland. The study of types was a standard photographic enterprise of the nineteenth century, and indeed the show at the Metropolitan Museum, which includes two rooms devoted to photographic series that anticipate or parallel or reflect the sort of work that Sander did (brilliantly assembled by Mia Fineman), contains a number of these: William Carrick’s Russian Types, from the 1860s, and Emil Meyer’s Viennese Types, circa 1910, as well as John Thompson’s Street Life in London of 1877, which employs the same cataloging form while not actually using the word.
That a human being could constitute a “type”—could exhibit the representative or ideal qualities of a class or a kind—was a commonplace of the time, the ideological overtones of which went largely unexamined. (This meaning of “type” is the seventh listed in the OED, and the earliest citations illustrating its two subdefinitions—“representative” and “ideal”—both date from the 1840s.) Today the notion seems slightly embarrassing at best, at worst symptomatic of a hierarchical worldview that is racist at least by implication. It suggests the colonial triage that would distinguish higher and lower types among the savages, and calls to mind those period charts in which human physiognomies were paired with their zoological count-erparts—superior, aquiline-nosed humans shown to resemble eagles and inferior, slope-browed sorts compared to baboons. Another such artifact is on view at the Met: the photocomposites of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and among other things a pioneer of fingerprint identification, who illustrated his theories of eugenics by stacking transparencies of faces in order to derive an average: a criminal type, a Jewish type (in practice they look misty, like faces seen in the clouds). A type, whether of carriage barns or Manx cats or gingerbread cookies, is the three-dimensional manifestation, from a pool that is subject to innumerable variations, of a preexisting model held in one mind or many. In other words, it is the embodiment of a prejudice.
Sander divided his project into seven parts, seven portmanteau categories of humans, parceled out primarily according to occupations, with further subdivisions totaling some forty-five portfolios. He prefaced the whole with a Portfolio of Archetypes, made up of twelve pictures: the Man of the Soil, the Philosopher, the Fighter or Revolutionary, the Sage, then the female counterparts of those four, then the Woman of Progressive Intellect, then Two Couples, Propriety and Harmony (both qualities are attached to both couples), and finally Three Generations of the Family. It might appear as though Sander, in his first four categories, was dividing humanity into four universal constants, like earth, water, fire, and air, although both vis-ually and conceptually the distinctions among the four are not strikingly evident (what to the eye distinguishes the Philosophers from the Sages may at most be a trace of skepticism, and we have to take his word for it about the Revolutionaries—we would be none the wiser if the captions had all been arbitrarily reassigned), just as it is unclear why he did not include a male intellectual.1 The couples, meanwhile, are merely upstanding couples—many such are to follow in subsequent categories—and the family is, well, a family. So right away, at the very start of the project, the present-day viewer is confronted by a paradox: one’s distrust of the presumption that humanity can be pigeonholed into types is immediately succeeded by frustration at the laxity of the assignments.
The grandiose encyclopedic conceit—in John Szarkowski’s words “typical of the nineteenth-century Teutonic affection for sorting and cataloging, a Linnaean approach to knowledge that has given us systematic biology, art history, phrenology, and worse”2—persists throughout the project, as do its frequent conundrums. Why is Sport, from gymnastics to boxing to aviation, a subset of the Farmer? Why is the Butcher’s Apprentice placed among the Industrialists rather than among the Workers? What, if anything, is signified by the fact that the father of one of the Farming Families in the first section reappears three volumes later as the Arbitrator? Why are there several photographs in the City that focus entirely on architecture and transport and in which human subjects figure barely if at all?
But such conceptual difficulties and confusions, which frequently force the viewer to stop and question, only prove that Sander, fortunately for him and for us, was neither a thinker nor a bureaucrat. However much he labored at drawing up all-encompassing schemes, he found them subverted at every turn by the reality of his human material. Since he was an artist, he allowed the disruption to occur. We know that he was forever fiddling with his categories, adding new ones and moving contents around in an effort to accommodate his growing mass of pictures and the challenge of fitting in new and unanticipated sorts of people. He does not, however, seem to have trimmed the material to fit his categories. The real value of his scientific conceit was not as a frame or a method, but as a mandate to pursue his subject with unblinking impartiality.
That Sander’s conceptual confusion can best be seen as evidence of his humanity is illustrated in portfolio 42, Types and Figures of the City. At first glance the category seems lumpy and ill-conceived. The title suggests street life, and indeed the folio contains pictures of several unemployed men, a “criminal type,” beggars, asylum inmates, disabled miners and war veterans working as street vendors, an outdoor washerwoman, and a casual laborer. The category also includes the manager of a waxworks, who would not normally haunt the sidewalks, although you could reason that he couldn’t comfortably be shoehorned into any other category. But then there is a Viennese typesetter, who would seem to belong among the Skilled Tradesmen. And there is the Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, whom Sander inserted into three different categories; two Bohemians (the Cologne artists Willi Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann, friends of Sander’s); and finally (actually the first in the series) there is Sander him-self, identified only as Photographer. Sander could easily have filed his own picture among the Artists. That he included his self-portrait in a catchall bin along with the crippled, the insane, and the destitute might be an ironic gesture; that he also included his friends in it makes it seem more like a statement of common cause.
Sander’s first book, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time, 1929), is a sixty-photo condensation of the project that contains most of the pictures we associate with him: the Village Schoolteacher, the Pastry Cook, the Notary, the Painter’s Wife, the Bricklayer, the Apothecary, Three Young Farmers.3 In the preface, the novelist Alfred Döblin insists that “just as there is comparative anatomy…so this photographer is doing comparative photography.”
The idea of “comparative photography,” when applied to human beings, is darkly reminiscent of a whole parade of projects of classification, all of them intended to establish a scientific basis for discriminating between “us” and “them”: Louis Agassiz’s systematic daguerreotypes of African-American slaves, meant to illustrate his contention that the different human races were actually different species; Cesare Lombroso’s attempts to distinguish and codify the physical characteristics of criminality; Alphonse Ber-tillon’s anthropometrics—his extension of Lombroso’s theories by means of photographs and body measurements—which, although its theoretical basis was discredited, permanently established the use of mug shots. Döblin’s rhetoric suggests that Sander’s project may have been seen as a way to reclaim that sort of classificatory energy for the left (although it should be remembered that in the early twentieth century the left carried on its own perilous flirtation with pseudoscience, notably eugenics).
The painter Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, a friend and subject of Sander’s, was a bit more precise in his criticism:
The aim should be a herbarium of human existence, as it were, stating location, year, activity, and class status, as in the words of Marx: “but these are people only inasmuch as they personify economic categories as bearers of certain class relationships and interests.”4
In a brief discussion of Sander in his “Little History of Photography” (1931), Walter Benjamin finesses the work’s claim to a scientific basis by quoting Goethe: “There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory.” But then he strikes a chillingly prophetic note:
Work like Sander’s could over-night assume unlooked-for topicality. Sudden shifts of power such as are now overdue in our society can make the ability to read facial types a matter of vital importance. Whether one is of the Left or the Right, one will have to get used to being looked at in terms of one’s provenance. And one will have to look at others the same way. Sander’s work is more than a picture book. It is a training manual.5
Perhaps, though, it was the work’s ineffectuality as a training manual that prompted the Nazis in 1936 to burn copies of Antlitz der Zeit and destroy its plates. After all, Sander photographed numerous Jews without labeling them as such, merely slotting them into professional categories like all other Germans. Or possibly they burned the book because when Sander portrayed people whose liabilities were visually less ambiguous—Gypsies and Turks and circus people of various races, as well as cripples, the mentally ill, and the mentally retarded—he did so with maximum respect and without editorial cordons or signposts. Or maybe it was because Sander, a lifelong Social Democrat whose older son was a Communist, evenhandedly depicted the entire political spectrum of Weimar-era Germany, featuring for example several pictures of his friend Erich Mühsam, an anarchist murdered by the Nazis at the Oranienberg concentration camp in 1934, and placidly implying equivalence among all parties, including minuscule splinter groups, such as the one whose representative is distinguished by multiple cowlicks and pants that end two inches above his shoes.
Sander scrupulously included the Nazis, of course, assigning them their own subcategory—23a, the National Socialist, appended to 23, the Soldier—and his Nazis are just as various as any of his other groupings. It is less surprising to find a Nazi who could pass for a painfully earnest college lecturer than it is to see one—SS Captain—who looks exactly as smug and oily and menacing as a movie Nazi.
It is of course impossible now to recover a detailed sense of how the photographs in Sander’s archive might or might not have conformed to contemporary stereotypes. Does the Pastry Cook look like the prevailing idea of a pastry cook in 1928 Germany, or does he look more thuggish than the norm, despite his exquisitely polished shoes? The Butcher’s Apprentice looks like Mack the Knife (see illustration on page 14), and, as noted, Sander included him among the Industrialists, because, the preface says unconvincingly, “he apparently saw [him] as a typical representative of a rising class of workers”—is there a connection between his appearance and his placement? The Grand Duke is the very image of a grand duke, the Boxer (1932) the archetypal boxer, the Commercial Traveler the apotheosis of the traveling salesman (circa 1930), and the Gentleman Farmer and Wife incarnate the idea of prosperous self-satisfaction—did Sander choose to photograph them for those reasons? On the other hand, the Theologian looks like an athletic scientist, perhaps a geologist; the Hypnotist could be a theologian; the Colliery Manager could run an art gallery; and the Farmer from Kuchhausen (1951) looks like Bertolt Brecht. Actually, the farmers, of whom more are represented than any other class or profession, are an astonishingly diverse lot, few of whom conform to any preconceived notion we might have of what farmers look like. We could possibly be deceived by the fact that many, especially those photographed before 1914, are wearing their Sunday best—one Young Farmer sports a high collar, white tie, white gloves, and a three-quarter-length coat of exceedingly refined and complex tailoring, making him look like a diplomat attending the opera—but quite a number would look like grandees even in overalls, and since only one is singled out as a gentleman farmer it must be that all the others enjoyed daily contact with the soil.
Naturally, the more representatives of any given trade or status Sander was able to muster, the more the results defy typecasting. He photographed many families, many artists, many clergymen, many teachers, a sizable number of politicians, and quite a few beggars, but there is only one cook, one dentist, one banker, one grocer, one fisherman, and one (fantastically mustached, like a figure from the Raj) policeman. The families tend to fade into one another, whether they are happy or not, but the only group that verges on uniform dullness is the lineup of (entirely forgotten) writers. There are celebrities (Otto Dix, Richard Strauss, Paul Hindemith, Wilhelm Furtwängler), but they are given no special treatment and would be indistinguishable from the common run had the editors not supplied their names.
The exception is the Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, who leers through his monocle, poses shirtless in two out of three shots, and in one picture displays his wife on one arm and his girlfriend on the other. The earliest picture is unsurprisingly the most snapshot-like, the ones taken between 1910 and 1914 the most self-consciously beautiful, the ones taken in the late 1920s and early 1930s the most determinedly plain. The beauty and the plainness reflect the aesthetics of their day, and it is not easy to tell which pictures were made as commissioned portraits and which resulted from Sander’s own initiative.
Among the pre-1914 photos are many that are obviously ceremonial—the Engaged Farming Couple, the families with their children buttoned up in sailor suits—but others were apparently the result of chance encounters, and yet they are just as perfectly and formally composed. One such is the 1914 picture of three Young Farmers (who may be on their way to a dance; the caption does not say), justly famous because its subjects are clearly traveling from one era toward another. Although they are superficially identical, three men in black suits and black hats with white collars and walking sticks, they represent three distinct versions of a type. The one on the left—his hat tipped back, his stick aslant, a lock escaping from his hat-brim and a cigarette in his mouth—looks like someone Courbet or George Borrow could have encountered on the road fifty or a hundred years earlier, a rogue apprentice or an Andalusian fortune hunter. The one on the right, whose hat and stick are exactly perpendicular to each other and whose wide, stiff collar seems like a mount for his head, might be a parson from a Nordic puritan sect. The one in the middle, however, has neither the stiffness of the latter nor the dandyish languor of the former—he is dynamic in a recognizably twentieth-century style, from his four-in-hand tie to his snap-brim hat. His curled left hand is extended as if he were consulting a pocket watch and his eyes are hooded in a way that would look good on a movie screen. Although he is second in line he is the apex of the triangle. It is easy to imagine him as leading his friends, nineteenth-century folk, toward some hazily envisioned Cockaigne of cocktails and short skirts and jazz, although their path is about to be blocked by war and might well lead to total loss.
There is hardly a photograph in the collection that is not in some way shadowed in the mind of the viewer by speculation regarding the subjects’ later lives. You find yourself constantly adding to or subtracting from the dates. A Farming Family of 1913 or 1914 includes a patriarch, presumably a veteran of 1870, who wears the Iron Cross; holding him by an elbow is a towheaded youngster of perhaps eight—will he go on in turn to die at Stalingrad? A Workers’ Council from the Ruhr, photographed in 1929, is composed of six grave, awkward men, young and old, in shirtsleeves and in suits. Which ones will be killed in street fights or in the camps? Which ones will join the Nazis? An Amateur Advocate with a craggy face and jutting ears, whose picture was taken in 1952, appears possibly deformed, and although this may simply mean that he has poor posture, you can’t help but wonder what happened to him a decade earlier.
To speculate this way about the anonymous subjects of a photographer such as Cartier-Bresson would risk trivializing the pictures, reducing them to anecdotes, ignoring the intricately balanced edifice of the artist’s decisions. With Sander, though, it is entirely germane. You begin to understand why—for reasons that go be-yond fashion or even aesthetics—he progressively pared down the settings of his pictures. His true, invisible subject is the lacuna that lies between the human face and its accompanying caption, an enormous space in which are packed all the contradictions of a life.
The Widower, a portly middle-aged man who—unusually for Sander—avoids the camera, stands with his two young sons, both in Eton collars and long shorts, all three nub-headed as if they had shaved their hair out of grief. A pinch-faced Real Estate Agent wearing boots and a long raincoat that makes her head look disproportionately small, her hair concealed by a round black hat like a cake on a plate, is framed narrowly and at full length like a medieval saint (see illustration on page 16). Similarly framed is a Bailiff, a chubby little man who doesn’t look happy, clutching his briefcase under an arm and his pipe in the other hand, standing splay-legged as if he had reluctantly agreed to pose for exactly one minute. A Grandmother, holding an angry little baby, has a long, aristocratic face and wears an elaborate crocheted black head scarf, the ends trailing down over her breast, the combination of the two making her look simultaneously like a portrait by Vigée-LeBrun and an elderly water spaniel.
An old Porter with a vast mustache, his pale eyes almost lost in the creases of his face, sitting in an attitude of defeat, could have been a model for Emil Jannings in The Last Laugh had that movie not been made before the picture was taken. A Blind Miner and a Blind Soldier sit side by side on a bench, the former with his eyes shut, the latter with his eyes open revealing stark white orbs. A series of twelve pictures grouped as Victims of Persecution shows an array of people sufficiently diverse that it would be impossible to guess their common bond without a caption, all but two facing quarter left, all of them Jews from Cologne photographed around 1938, some about to emigrate and the rest headed for the gas chambers.
It is possible to wish for more rigor in Sander’s photographs—a more defined sense of purpose, a more consistent control of form. But that is to wish for a static Sander, a permanent resident of one given year, an obsessive more than an artist. For the work to be fixedly consistent would also deny its power as the record of a life, with all that that entails: periods of crisis and serenity, epiphanies and changes of mind, accidental discoveries and unintended detours. The amount of strictly autobiographical information on hand is limited but powerful: his son Erich shown as a boyishly serious student of philosophy in 1926, and in his prison cell in 1943, nine years after his imprisonment by the Nazis for political infractions and a year before he died there,6 and the photo of his death mask that closes the project; the picture from 1911 entitled My Wife in Joy and Sorrow, in which she holds two babies in baptismal gowns, one rosy, the other wan—they are twins, and the one on the right is days away from dying.
Much of Sander’s story has to be inferred, from gaps and leaps and periods of engagement, but a whole education is on view, from the conscript of 1896 and the romantic wanderer of 1912 to the modernist of 1926 and the embattled dissident of 1938. The title People of the Twentieth Century may appear presumptuous since the last picture was taken in 1954, a mere sixty-two years after the first, but its time span can be measured in epochs. The Hessian Farm Girl of 1913 and the Parish Nurses of 1924 are images that seem to predate the birth of photography, showing subjects whose clothing, customs, and even faces belong to the eighteenth century or maybe earlier. The Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne and the Architect Hans Heinz Lüttgen and his Wife Dora, on the other hand, are people you could find in the streets of any major city right now, despite the fact that they were photographed in 1931 and 1926, respectively.
Sander’s work lies somewhere between a diary and a Domesday Book, a scrupulous record not unmediated by the recorder’s fallibility, a grandiose scheme sabotaged by the honesty and fluidity of its mastermind, an elaborate filing system made of porous fiber that lets in the rain. It is a great, sweeping picaresque novel, with hundreds of incidental encounters and several ringing themes, that ends pretty much where it begins, in the Rhenish countryside on an overcast afternoon.
September 23, 2004
Sander does not appear to have written much explaining his choices, and the seven volumes here carry only cursory prefaces by the editors. Footnotes refer the reader to an accompanying volume of essays, which has not, however, been translated. ↩
Photography Until Now (Museum of Modern Art, 1989), p. 244. ↩
In print in English as Face of Our Time: Sixty Photographs of German People of the Twentieth Century (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1994). ↩
Quoted by Klaus Honnef in German Photography 1870–1970 (Cologne: DuMont, 1997), p. 17. ↩
Selected Works, Vol. 2 (Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 520. ↩
While imprisoned he photographed many of his fellow inmates, sending the pictures to his father, who incorporated them into the project, assigning them their own section, 44a, Political Prisoners. ↩