(The National Post, 12 April 2016)
Every time I come upon a portrait by August Sander, I stop and stare. His photographs crop up in magazines, books, on the walls of galleries, on my computer screen. Wherever a Sander appears, it forces me to wonder what it means. Sander's pictures are the simplest portraits in the history of photography. They are also the deepest. Sander (1876-1964) was a German portrait photographer. He photographed his subjects in plain-Jane style, placing them in the middle of the frame, giving the picture an air of formality. He included only a few background details, to suggest their lives and their jobs - a butcher, a bricklayer, a schoolteacher.
It sounds ordinary but Sander had a special quality that made his subjects give themselves to the lens. Character fills his pictures. A certain tone often dominates - confidence sometimes, defensiveness at other times, occasionally resignation or defiance. Yousuf Karsh always claimed to describe the personalities of his subjects but usually told us more about himself. Sander kept his thoughts out of the picture.
He's now a towering figure in the history of photography. The Museum of Modern Art in New York, always interested in him, announced proudly last year that it now owns a full set of the 619 portraits that were used in his book, People of the Twentieth Century.
The latest of many tributes to Sander is a little book, 115 pages, Emblems of the Passing World (Other Press Publishing) in which 46 portraits by Sander are accompanied by the poems of Adam Kirsch, a young poet-critic who teaches at Columbia University. Kirsch comments on the people in the portraits (mainly from 1910 to 1930) and speculates on what we can learn from these images. Kirsch writes clear, precise poems, a pleasure to read. But his main goal is demonstrating to the book's readers the range of ideas that a Sander photograph provokes. The result is a stimulating example of one art illuminating another.
Kirsch's poem accompanying Middle-class Child, 1926, raises problems that may lie in wait for someone who has always been told she is wonderful. He notes her merry smile and her hands resting contentedly in her lap. It seems her life has been arranged to hide even the possibility of defeat. "Who could rebuke her," he writes, "when she acts as if she thought she were herself the greatest gift?" Sander was the son of a carpenter who worked in the mining industry. He was introduced to photography while helping a professional photographer who worked for a mining company. Sanders then set up a home studio with financial support from his uncle, worked later as a photographer's assistant and eventually owned his own business in Cologne. His son Erich, who was a member of the left-wing Socialist Workers' Party (SAP), was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he died. Copies of Sander's book, Face of our Time, were seized by the Nazis in 1936 and the photographic plates destroyed. In his late years Sander's work as a photographer faded away. He died in Cologne in 1964.
A commercial photographic studio was a humble setting for a great career. But Sander developed an idea of himself as a historian, a recorder of human features. Over several decades he assembled a social portrait that (he correctly believed) would be published in books and seen for many years.
While his reputation is much larger now than in his lifetime, his ability never went unrecognized. In 1929 Alfred Döblin, a critic and fiction writer best known for his novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, wrote about Sander in the introduction to Face of Our Time. Döblin saw the depth in his work. "Entire stories could be told about many of these photographs," he wrote. "They are raw material for writers. Those who know how to look will learn from these clear and powerful photographs."
Today these fragments of the past have an eerie quality. Germany in the 20th century was a nightmare, a series of catastrophes. We, from this particular perch in the 21st century, know how it all came out. We realize that in these pictures we are looking of a tableau of tragedies.
A photograph freezes time and Sander makes history visible. When we look at two women in the picture that Sander labelled Smalltown Women, 1913, our imagination turns to the appalling future that we understand but the two women do not.
We know that in a year the killing will begin and they will lose husbands or lovers or brothers in the First World War. Soon they will exist in a world where a healthy man will be a rarity. Then, if they live, they'll endure an influenza epidemic, terrifying inflation, riots, Hitler, then bombing and starvation. They will find themselves thrust into a world they never imagined, a world for which nothing prepared them. A harsh form of drama lies beneath the surface of these pictures.
As Adam Kirsch says in his introduction, "The clerk photographed in 1912 is on the verge of being killed on the Western Front. An infant boy photographed in the early 1920s will in all likelihood spend his teenage years in the Hitler Youth, his young manhood in the Wehrmacht, or worse."
Years ago, visiting the Rhineland, I talked with the mayor of a small town. He looked back on Hitler as a madman but also remembered his own feelings in adolescence: "I can't express how I wished, when I was 13, that my 14th birthday would come soon so that I could join the Hitler Youth. It was my one passionate wish. And no one I knew disagreed with me."
When we look at Sander's portraits we are looking at prisoners of history.