TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT Summer 1980

Disquieting Norms

THE CHILLY, ALIENATING MOOD THAT intrigues us in August Sander’s portrait photographs—shown in an excellent exhibition directed by Michael Hoffman and coordinated by Martha Chahroudi1—may be our own creation, for it has nothing to do with his purposes. Susan Sontag writes:

Sander’s complicity with everybody also means a distance from everybody. His complicity with his subjects is not naive . . . but nihilistic. Despite its class realism, it is one of the most truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography.

To say that this German artist is “abstract” and “nihilistic” is to characterize in modernist terms a personality who acknowledged mostly older influences: Goethe, for instance, in the close harmony of culture and nature.

One has only to think of the much younger Moholy-Nagy to perceive how truly archaic was Sander’s impulse during the Interregnum, when both men were at their peak. As part of his training in turn-of-the-century Dresden, Sander (born in 1876) had to learn portrait and landscape painting “in oils,” executed in an academic-realist style that not only catered to his market but expressed his artistic background. The Aperture monograph points to Wilhelm Leibl, a 19th-century painter of peasants, as a Sander prototype. As for the pronounced scientific basis of Sander’s outlook, it was as remote from contemporary technology as one of his actual sources, the physiognomic theories of Lavater, the 18th-century Swiss who attempted to classify faces according to schemes of human temperament. Sander quixotically proposed that the professions and trades molded characteristic human types and that photography could inventory them! As an intellectual program, Sander’s enterprise was quaint, plodding, and grandiose, words we might apply to Atget’s oeuvre, too, if we were dense enough to see no more in it than a documentation of old Paris.

There is nevertheless a connection between what August Sander meant with his portrait anthology and the way we respond to it. The pictures in “Man of the Twentieth Century,” his lifelong project, could not have been accomplished without an effort that we recognize as at once persistent and selfless. But that is not to say that he denied his “self” or subordinated it to the egos of his sitters. If the evidence these images furnish does not assert his subjective will, it does demonstrate the presence of a guiding idea.

The cumulative impact of his subjects, diverse as they are socially, but all treated with an undeceptively plain style—mostly frontal poses; even, natural light and stock framing—testifies to that idea. These people are there to be studied as differentiated parts that make up a complicated whole, concrete presences implying an invisible context. The photographer does not interpret personalities; he describes types, organizes sequences, and “controls” his hierarchy, starting with the peasants and workers, moving upward through the villages and cities, with business people, clergy, functionaries, artists, and then “descending” back to service personnel, flunkies, losers, and physical or mental defectives.

To gain a clearer idea of the power of this undertaking, we have only to compare it with Sander’s landscapes, plentifully displayed at the show. It was earlier thought that innocuous landscape had been imposed upon him by Nazis who would not tolerate his matchless indifference to their concepts of Aryan racial purity. This is only very partly true. For one thing, Sander was a Democratic Socialist who consorted openly with left-wingers and Jews dating from the ’20s, and whose son was in the resistance. The government would consider his politics more subversive than his portraits. For another thing, the celebration of nature evidently fulfilled long-term instinctual needs. The countryside around Cologne, Westerwald, and along the northern and central Rhine, filled him with a distinct awe. A miner in his youth, a man who always got on affectionately with peasants, nursed sick animals, and communed with nature all his life, did not have to resort to landscape. And it shows in his work, which is lovingly rendered, finely nuanced, and finally quite a bore. The unction of Sander’s Rhenish pastoral strikes a more propagandistic note—conventional earth mysticism—than his vividly detached portraits. With these we are struck by a remarkable absence of what one expects in portraits—psychological curiosity and emotional contact.

Sander was interested, not in who his sitters were, but in what they represented. Concerned with how they might be made to fit into and structure his social catalogue, he transformed them all into . . . specimens, branded by his impassive gaze. By a strange twist the face itself, though it kept its normal human expressiveness, was altered into an example of carnal topography. (Interestingly, Sander came to print his portraits on paper used for precise architectural rendering.) There is a certain misguidedness in supposing that you can account for a complex social environment by describing, one by one, the so-called typical organisms that live within it. But if that attitude was necessary for him to have produced his startling view of the human face as interesting beef, I am grateful. In theory, this might sound coercive and degrading, but it didn’t work that way in practice.

On the contrary, Sander’s subjects did not hesitate to assert themselves; it was in his interest that they do so. But he superimposed upon their self-imagery his investigative values, that neither applauded social imposture nor condemned it. Because he withheld judgment, he was able to illuminate everyday stakes in the playing of roles. That’s why it’s possible to speak of the meatiness of his exposures. He showed how the skin imperfectly composed itself into a mask. Inquisitive without being rhetorically or personally involved, he made people visible in an unfamiliar, often strange way. Though it’s most apparent in the overall course of his work (and less in individual frames) the extreme raw materialism of his vision dominates the symbolic guises of his sitters.

So much, briefly, for the qualities of his stare, of which his subjects would not have been fully conscious. On the basis of the formal trust they had in him, they arranged themselves, not being able to imagine the incredibly revealing particularities of his description. The constancy and directness of his approach produced unforeseen results, endless, puzzling variations.

Something about the Protestant missionaries, in Cologne, 1931—their being on a podium perhaps, or their fustian, ceremonial stiffness—makes them look like exhibits in an ethnographic museum. Without suspecting it in the least, they have the air of being “natives,” in need of conversion themselves. Another, two-figure tableau, this time in Sardinia, has some of that same waxen quality. Within what appears to be a crypt, a priest blesses an angelically pious young man. Sander gave these people permission to be constrained (if that’s what they wanted); and they behave with a self-conscious artifice that only accentuates the urgency of the occasion, making it oddly and movingly genuine. Did he know or care that their presentation was excruciatingly out of joint, much more reminiscent of the 19th-century past than his present?

This photography draws out from people’s appearances the most anomalous details, such as the sudden thickness of the male peasants’ thumbs, or the way the ears of the Westerwald farm boy resemble those of the sheep he is petting. One notices facial asymmetries everywhere, ill-fitting clothes, awkward bodies, and a discomfort that is situational. Even though it is a more subtle contemporary photo, the picture of the Cologne businessman objectifies pretense in the same unsettling way. With his obligatory cigar, this assured, efficient man of the world is suspended in his own charade. Sander’s camera might be said to quote; it never collaborates with the performance. Photographs do go about picking up oddities, but the haunting aspect of Sander’s pictures is that his outlook seems to attract them without precisely intending to. Given the overall norms of his portraits, you can’t help thinking that the businessman has annoyingly regular features. Nothing comes out right. No wonder that Arbus and Avedon, recoiling from fashion fakery, seized upon Sander’s aberrational hints and little genetic alarms. But where he merely studied flesh, the Americans sought scandal.

In retrospect, their homage shows Sander to have been a modern figure all along. He shared but outdistanced the quietism of such forward-looking colleagues as Blossfeldt, Renger-Patzsch, and Lerski. The luminous immobility of his work must owe something to his friends of the Cologne Progressives, who were Neue Sachlichkeit painters of a metaphysical stripe, conjuring images of mechanism, estrangement, and facelessness. That mood is sometimes felt as a subtext in Sander’s grand campaign. But this circle was also radical Marxist, caught up with the hope of providing a class analysis of society by means of “collective, informational signs.” (Franz Seiwert)2

Though he was possibly tempted by it, Sander could not be enlisted in their program. His “signs,” after all, were infinitely less leading than theirs, and while photography could infer class barriers, it could not diagram them. He did not have to determine the controlling politics of a milieu because he was bearing witness to them. Yet, what we read when we inspect his great inventory is only a simple message, incessantly repeated: “This is the way we looked (or rather, wanted to look)”. I use the past tense because of the posthumous character of his portrait style, depicting people who are often ferociously alive.

Astonishing as that is, the historical value of his work has still another dimension. All too frequently, the polarities of social photography have been defined as sentimental or abrasive. Sander achieved a miraculous equilibrium, thoroughly independent of both conditions. The two admiring writers of the Sander catalogue, Beaumont Newhall and Robert Kramer, haven’t a clue as to what was sacrificed and earned in his long, ruthless, sustained solution to the portrait problem. But the show itself offers more than a glimpse of it.

Isn’t it that one wants a thing to be as factual as possible, and yet at the same time as deeply suggestive or deeply unlocking of areas of sensations other than simple illustrating of the object that you set out to do? Isn’t that what art is all about?

One would have been pleased to have heard Sander say that; in fact, it was Francis Bacon.

Max Kozloff is a photographer and writer whose latest book is Photography and Fascination (Addision House, 1979).

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NOTES

1. August Sander: Photographs of an Epoch, an Aperture monograph, is published as a catalogue for the exhibition, as a book for general distribution, and as a special issue of the periodical.

2. Quoted by Richard Pommel, “August Sander and the Cologne Progressives,” Art in America, Jan.–Feb. 1976, p. 36.