No language on earth speaks as comprehensively as photography, always providing that we follow the chemical and optic and physical path to demonstrable truth, and understand physiognomy.(1) August Sander
August Sander (1876-1964) was a German portrait photographer most noted for his detached, clinical, and comprehensive recording of inter-war German society in a lifelong work known as ‘People of the Twentieth Century’.
Based on seven categories the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesmen, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artist, the City and the Last People. Within each category, many more sub-categories exist (2).
His work has been described as stylistically sober, clinical, detached, constructed, social realism. Very different from the dominant pictorialist photographic era leading up to 1920. So where did the influence come from? In the early 1920s, Sander became involved with the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln); themselves proponents of New Objectivity with its characteristic style of social realism. For more information regarding New Objectivity (or Neue Sachlichkeit) see Research Blog.
According to Dorothy Rowe (3) the influence of the Group upon Sander is clear.
Talking of the Group’s style Rowe says:
New Objectivity is notoriously difficult to define. Never a formal movement or style, it was a term most commonly attributed to Gustav Hartlaub, Director of the Kunsthalle in Mannheim. Hartlaub sought to identify the tendencies he had perceived in post-First World War art in Germany after the demise of expressionism. Common characteristics include the precise (or ‘exact’) rendition of material objects or people, confined within a static or airless space. (3)
I understand the term ‘precise rendition’ applied to Sander’s work but how to interpret the idea of a ‘static or airless space’ is less obvious. Looking at the image ‘Art Dealer’ (above), the use of a wide aperture (typical of many of Sander’s images), creating a short depth of field with a resultant bokeh achieves three things. It ‘pops’ the subject of the picture, thereby focusing the viewer’s attention where Sander’s requires. It removes distracting background detail whilst still offering clues that Sanders wants us to use. And finally, it achieves the simple stripped aesthetic that characterises this body of work, thereby assisting in the consistency required with typographical studies of this nature.
My own portrait
I decided to photograph a gardener, Annie, in the style of the August Sander’s pictures above; the Art Dealer, the Pastry Cook and the Blacksmith. The foreground characteristics of those three Sander’s photographs are that each subject holds a professional tool; (the art magazine, the mixing spoon and the hammer). In my picture, Annie holds a pair of shears.
Sander’s backgrounds feature an art gallery, a kitchen and a smithy; thereby denoting where his subjects work and therefore indicating their professions. With Annie, the gardener, I show a greenhouse with plants.
The shallow depth of field, shot at F1.2, isolates the subject from the background concentrating the viewer’s attention on the visually sober expression of Annie.
In terms of the success of my image, it does mimic the three featured Sanders photographs. However, one criticism is that Annie’s face is slightly soft – caused by failing to focus at F1.2 properly.
(1) Sander, A. (n.d.). August Sander Biography, Life & Quotes. [online] The Art Story. Available at: https://www.theartstory.org/artist/sander-august/life-and-legacy/ [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
(2) Sander, A. (n.d.). August Sander – People of the 20th Century. [online] Md20jh.augustsander.org. Available at: https://md20jh.augustsander.org/groups/view/1?theme [Accessed 18 Feb. 2020].
(3) Dorothy C. Rowe, ‘August Sander and the Artists: Locating the Subjects of New Objectivity’, in Tate Papers, no.19, Spring 2013, https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/august-sander-and-the-artists-locating-the-subjects-of-new-objectivity, accessed 18 February 2020.