Girl in Fairground Caravan, 1926-1932
By Leo Rubinfien, Art in America, June-July, 2004
August Sander (1876-1964) was one of the 20th century’s greatest photographers. He spent his early career as a commercial portraitist in Linz, Austria, but began the huge group of photographs for which he is best remembered after 1904 or so, when his pictures underwent a change in style. Where he had once flattered the vanity of his subjects with beautifying effects, his new work was cool, remorselessly detailed, analytical and penetrating, a kind of counterpart, sharply Germanic in tone, to the expressive realism of the Frenchman Eugene Atget. In 1910 Sander moved to Cologne, mixing in the 1920s with the painters known as the Cologne Progressives. His output there epitomized one side of what, in the Weimar Period, would be called the Neue Sachlichkeit. This term has been used for a very wide range of German art and literature, from Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain to the grotesqne caricatures of George Grosz and of Sander’s friend Otto Dix; it has of ten meant “reportorial,” indicating work visually cleaner and cooler than the high German Expressionism of the early 20th century, but it has also been used very differently, for visually extreme work that was thought “objective” in that it showed how rotten life had become. “Neue Sachlichkeit” is also applied to certain photographs of the 1920s, notably Albert Renger-Patszch‘s and Sander’s own, characterized by sharp focus, clear lighting, the absence of distortion and a seeming unemotionality. Nonetheless, traces of the angst that troubles most Neue Sachlichkeit painting can also be found in Sander’s portraits, which he made on large glass negatives and produced as gelatin silver prints.
After his army service in World War I, Sander worked mainly in Cologne and its environs, particularly the villages in the Westerwald, the region southeast of the city. He photographed landscapes; factories and ruins, but he is valued primarily for his portraits, which touched concerns central to German life in the Weimar and early Nazi periods, and through them, some of the central paradoxes of modern life. Most of the portraits were made to the order of clients, but there were periods when he roamed the countryside offering his services, and there were also many subjects he found and photographed for his own purposes, including the Unemployed Worker (1928) and the Victim of an Explosion (1930).
In 1929 he published 60 portraits as Antlitz der Zeit, whose usual English rendering is The Face of Our Time, but which could as reasonably be called The Face of the Times or The Face of Time (Munich, Kurt Wolff Verlag/Transmare). In Antlitz, Sander withholds the names of his subjects, leaving uncertain which photographs were commissions and which were made for his own artistic purposes and what difference there might have been between his commercial and expressive aims.
Sander had further plans for the massive Menschen des 20, Jahrhunderts, a seven-volume work that consists largely of portraits made between the early 1900s and the 1950s. It was intended to give a synoptic view of German society, organized into both professional and nonprofessional groups (e.g., Businessmen,” “The Sick” and one exquisitely titled series, “People Who Came to My Door”). The book was never published during Sander’s life, but his hope that it would be lasted nearly four decades, during which he elaborated its plan. His earliest known description of the project appears in a letter of 1925, and if the ascension of the National Socialists had not intervened, the book might well have gone to press in the ’30s.
Though Antlitz was well received, it was among the many books the Nazis banned, without explanation, after they came to power. In 1936 its publisher’s inventory of copies was confiscated and its printing plates were destroyed. With that, the chances of realizing Menschen under the Third Reich vanished but Sander went on refining it in private. He also continued to photograph in the later ’30s and the ’40s, though in reduced volume, and even into the ’50s, over time increasing the number of pictures in Menschen, and adding such groups as “The Persecuted” (Jews) and “Foreign Workers.” Toward the climax of World War II, he retreated to the Westerwald from Cologne, which was largely wrecked by bombing.
In the later 1930s his oldest son, Erich, an active Communist who had been seized by the Nazis, made a number of pictures of his fellow prison inmates; the images were smuggled by a priest to Sander, who included some of them in later editings of Menschen as the series “Political Prisoners.” Erich died in captivity, and Sander wrote in at least one postwar letter that the Nazis were “subhuman.”
This and other bits of information suggest that he may have despised the Nazis, but like most of those Germans who were philosophically and temperamentally opposed to them yet remained in Germany through the Hitler years, he would have had little chance to express himself safely. At one point, in an inarticulate, furious gesture of protest, he displayed the raw head of a pig in the shop window of his studio in Cologne and was quickly ordered to remove it, but he seems more typically to have lain low.
In 1992 Sander’s archive of negatives, prints, books, manuscripts, letters, etc., was acquired by the SK Cultural Foundation (an activity of the SK Bank, Cologne), forming the core of its Photographic Archive, which now runs a library and galleries, and exhibits material well beyond Sander’s own. The Archive has produced books that include Zeitgenossen: August Sander and die Kunstszene der 20er Jahre im Rheinland (Contemporaries: August Sander and the Art Scene of the Rhineland in the 1920s) and Landschaften (Landscapes) by Sander, but its most ambitious project has bees Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, which, in 2002, it published in full for the first time. The Archive’s Menschen (also published as Citizens of the 20th Century by Abrams) meticulously follows Sander’s plans, down to the binding cloth he chose for each of its volumes. It is an invaluably contribution to the history of photography, and to that of modern art generally. The German edition also includes an eighth volume, the Studienband (Study-book) with texts about Sander, and the only complaint one can make about the undertaking is that the American publisher omitted this. It includes many of the principal German-authored critical texts on Sander, which do not exist in English translation.
All but two Sander titles cited below are accompanied by their desonations in the new edition of Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, which, begin with Roman numerals indicating one of its seven volumes, (followed by a section and a plate number) or else begin with the letters “ST,” indicating the “Stammappe” of volume I. The two exceptions, given as S/M plus a page number, refer to the Schirmer/Mosel 1980 edition (see note 9).–L.R.
The past is a foreign country not just because of all that we have forgotten, but also because of the enormous events we so well remember. It is easy enough to consult the historians, who will tell us that, in the ebullient, doomed summer of 1914, squads of Belgian soldiers hauled machine guns toward the German border on small carts towed by dogs; (1) that, as the inflation of the ’20s threw respected families from their homes, bourgeois residents of the German cities went out to the farms to trade jewelry and fine rugs for eggs and to steal food when no trade could be had. (2) There are old photographs of children making kites from worthless banknotes and tellers valuing blocks of them by weight; there are accounts of days when the morning paper cost 50,000 marks and the evening 100,000, and when two shoelaces cost more than a store full of shoes once had. (3) In 1924 only the shrewdest players in the currency riot survived, and you might have relieved a little of your fury in the “China Store” in Berlin’s Lunapark, by hurling a hard ball at the crockery on the shelves and smashing all you could; (4) by 1929 many people praised Hitler for his loving heart. Clouds seemed to disperse for his rallies so often that sunshine was called “Hitler-weather,” (5) and on Ruegen Island in 1931, families spelt their names in pinecones on the ramparts of sand fortresses, and embellished them with swastikas. (6) Two years later, the aging anarchist Erich Muhsam, the middle of the three Revolutionaries (II/11/12) in August Sander’s photograph of 1929, was arrested; his teeth were bashed out with a rifle butt and a swastika was branded on his scalp with a red hot iron. (7) Execution notices appeared on the poster columns of Berlin among the advertisements for restaurants and films, but the summer of 1933 was also remembered for its beauty. The vintage of that autumn, they say, was treasured by connoisseurs for years to come. (8)
What is difficult to expel from one’s mind is this story’s ghastly ending, the unrelenting murder–in the Atlantic, at Stalingrad, in the concentration camps, in the incineration of Hamburg, Berlin and the other German cities, and finally in the Fuhrerbunker, whose child inmates, in a baroque extravagance of destruction, were put to death by their own parents one day before the end of the war. These events were so monumental, and so powerfully shaped the world we still live in, that it takes much effort of the imagination to restore to the German ’20s and ’30s the bewilderment that pervaded them. When we know a story’s ending, its characters seem to follow an inexorable logic; but in fact it is only the ending that makes it a story, rather than just a swarm of incidents. That the future was as illegible then as always is painfully clear in Sander’s photograph of an Apollonian soldier of the Wehrmacht before a half-timbered, Westerwald barn (Soldier, ca. 1940, IV/23/7) serene in his polished helmet, disturbed only by some unspecific sorrow that flickers in his eyes. To us, who cannot unsee the disaster in which he is taking part, the motto “Gott Mit Uns” on his belt buckle is vicious, while his calm is practically shocking.
Some people say that whether a uniform is that of a Coldstream Guard, a Rumanian Jager or the Wehrmacht of the Third Reich is incidental; that a good picture’s strength must lie else where–in Sander’s carotid respect for his subject, say, or in the odd dignity with which his soldier has tightened his chinstrap even in a peaceful farmyard, far from bombs and guns. It can be held that, “after enough years, few will know who Adolf Hitler or his followers were, and that the important thing in a photograph is what is time less them. Sander, however, was one of the most historicist of photographers; in tact, while many of the best photographic books are named far places–Paris de Nuit, The Americans, Oh! Shinjuku and Am Boden, for example–his two principal titles identify their subjects by their times. He touches the moment so subtly that what we feel looking at the Westerwald soldier changes with the date his portrait is given. One 1980 printing of Menschen shows this as 1945, when the Gelanan cities were ruins and the soldier would have known his cause to be hopeless; (9) the new edition says 1940, but if we stay for a moment with the later year, his strange calm reads as a far rarer emotion–as, indeed, the stratospheric passivity of the suicide.
For all this nuance, though, Sander’s work is full of elisions of time, place and identity, about which he was so reticent that his portraits’ titles never give a sitter’s name; (10) instead, he assigned his people terse labels like “Boxers,” “Woman” or “Communists,” (11) then let his camera say everything about their fur collars, hounds, walking sticks, military medals and the anxious wrinkles that beset their cautious eyes. He is equally obscure about where we are. One would have to be very ignorant to think his subjects English or Russian, it is true, but Sander conspicuously declined to call his books Germans of the 20th Century or The Face of Germany.
Although the Weimar Republic lasted only 13 years (ca. 1920-33), (12) he made his unique, disintegrating nation stand for the entire 20th century. The world insists for good reasons that Hans Castorp’s Germany be distinguished from that of Mack the Knife, and the latter from those of the Nazi death squads or the Economic Miracle of the 1950s, but while Sander worked in each period, the boundaries between them are hard to find in his photographs. Menschen freely mixes crones from hamlets sunk in the mud-sodden past (see The Woman of Progressive Intellect, I/ST/9), the frills of their black bonnets as exotic as the droopy hind wings of a giant night moth in some dusty vitrine, with sleek industrialists of the Ruhr, Berlin Dadaists, and crisp Nazis with emblems of killing on their jackets. One photograph shows the family of Wilhelm Boden, the premier of Rheinland-Pfalz (III/15/10), but only an acute viewer will guess that the year is 1950, not 1932. Most of Sander’s finest pictures are exemplary works of the Weimar period–he was most fertile between his release from the Kaiser’s army in 1918 and Antlitz’s banning in 1936–but in combining them with work from before 1914 and after 1945 he absorbed the past and future into his own present. Meanwhile, though he acknowledged that the Weimar years were his strongest, he seems never to have recognized that the phenomenon of Weimar was his central subject.
Sander asked instead that his subjects be seen as “types” and “archetypes,” and his admirers have long loved the idea that the present could be made to speak for the ages. John Szarkowski, with his usual poetry, wrote that “Sander’s old peasant women saw Bosch’s obscene demons, and his hod carrier cursed the cathedral builders. His pastry baker, as soft and white and fat as his dough, arrogant, impregnably insular, pettily expert, stands solidly outside of time, as ancient and indestructible as gluttony.” (13) Studying Sander, we meet two paradoxes. He lived amid a disorder so pronounced that it produced Hitler’s Reich, yet his quiet, seemingly transparent portraits make no obvious reference to the violence that roared outside everybody’s doors, and eventually burst through his own when the jailers of his son Erich, a political convict, murdered him through neglect in 1944, refusing to treat his ruptured appendix. Meanwhile, most gander criticism carefully avoids the world from which his pictures were taken. This night be less disappointing if he were an abstractionist who worked apart from the cares of his neighbors, but the harrowing conditions of his strongest years must have distressed the minds of many of his subjects even as they sat before him. They do not show it. Or, perhaps, they dobut how? Sander ended Menschen on a picture of the death mask of his son. It was a stark and furious non sequitur, unlike any other image in that voluminous work, and although its meaning was hidden, it confides to us that–at the least–much roiled beneath the surface of Sander’s work.
Sander presented himself as both of and of more than Weimar, and Weimar as both of Germany and of something larger. This was a point of view characteristic of Weimar’s modernists, who wished intensely to break from the nation that had reveled and bled in the First World War. Their hopes of bringing Germany into a liberal, pan-European present were never untroubled, however–it was, as Ernst Bloch wrote, “the classical country of Anachronism.” (14) Indeed, in 1924, Joseph Roth found parts of central Berlin “like the deepest and darkest provinces after nightfall,” (15) and in 1939, attacking Poland, the fearsome Wehrmacht still depended on horsedrawn wagons. Alfred Doblin (who supplied Antlitz’s introduction) wrote that “an age is always a farrago of different ages. Whole parts … are unleavened and undercooked; it contains the husks of old forces and the seeds of new ones.” (16)
Many Germans loathed their age, (17) which threw their country into modernity with tremendous force, of which inflation was the most shattering effect. Ministers were murdered and schoolboys cheered; (18) there were good Christian, bourgeois ladies delighted by Walter Rathenau’s assassination; (19) “fanatics and unemployable ex-officers,” Peter Gay has written, “clubbed men to death and strangled women … on the mere suspicion of unpatriotic activities.” (20) Many historians judge Weimar’s constitution the most advanced in the Europe of its time, but the political system it established was abused so badly, by so many, that its subversion became inevitable. The inventiveness and power of much of Weimar’s culture are undisputed, but after a very few years, many of the best writers and artists fled, went silent or were murdered. One learns of another and another who took his own life.
It is impossible to say whether the Weimar period was marked more by the passion for or against the modern; hard even to say whether there was in National Socialism more sweaty enthusiasm for old regimental banners and the heroes of opera and myth, or more of the new fancy for 1,000-tank assaults, 100,000-man rallies and propaganda that. flattered millions. In the ’20s Sander’s portraits were criticized for overemphasizing the past. (21) Both modernists and nationalists complained of too many creaking peasants and tradesmen–types the new, forward-looking, “Americanized” Germany (as it was widely called) was thought to have moved beyond–but Weimar’s most essential trait was that it housed so much discord, and the presence in Sander’s work of so many of the superannuated among the many modern is perfectly right.
The more painfully the world splits apart, the more urgently we seek ways to hold it together, and Weimar’s Germans were especially hungry for all-encompassing theories and systems of understanding. With Sander’s portraits we are always considering two distinct pieces of work–the lean individual photograph and the prolix Menschen–and in conceiving that large structure, Sander seems to have shared the general longing. Its seven volumes (with over 500 pictures in 45 port folios) were organized as elaborately as a cathedral’s front or the barracks of an army camp: Group 4, for example, “The Professions,” included “The Student,” “The Scholar,” “The Official,” “The Doctor and the Pharmacist,” “The Judge and the Attorney,” “The Soldier,” “The National Socialist,” “The Aristocrat,” “The Clergyman,” “The Teacher and Educator,” “The Businessman” and “The Politician.”
Sander aimed, he said, at no less than an “outline of the existing social order,” (22) and copies of Antlitz included an advertisement for the projected Menschen that implied the still larger ambition to discover a hierarchy and a profluent logic: “Sander moves from … the man of the soil … through all classes and types of profession to the representatives of the highest civilization, then back again to the idiot.” (23) Menschen opens with Wilhelmine rustics, ascends to capitalists and composers, and closes (penultimate to Erich Sander’s death mask) with midgets, the grotesque Victim of an Explosion of 1980 (VII/45/12) and two cadavers. (Most writers say that the sitters in the first portfolio were meant to stand for the simpler, nobler, more harmonious way of living that, almost everywhere in modern mythology, is believed to have preceded the 20th century’s strife, and many call them the archetypes from which the diverse, modern people in the later portfolios follow.)
This progression vaguely resembles the course empire took in the writing of the doomsayer Oswald Spengler–whose Decline of the West (1922) flamboyantly held that Europe would soon regress to barbarism like ancient Persia and Rome, and that its deterioration could be tracked as closely as a case of tuberculosis–and many contemporary critics have labored to find in Sander a grim view of “the cycle of civilization.” (24) Sander criticism also preserves a whiff of Weimar’s disputatiousness, (25) dwelling long and hard on how the vocations are arranged in Meschen–on what it must mean that The Student precedes The Scholar, or The Politician, The Businessman–and there are fierce opinions about whether the presence of many craftspeople and few factory-men means that Sander was or was not for the proletarian. (26) The assumption is general that Menschen’s pages should be turned in order, even though photography has only the poorest ability to narrate, and what Sander achieved with the organization of his books was neither storytelling nor theory but theatrical effect. The compact Antlitz insists less than Menschen that we find meaning in structure and is actually the stronger work of editing. Its characters follow one another as if revealed in sequence on a dark, soundless stage. Why each follows the last is never explained, and the empty interstices between the pictures are almost as potent as the pictures themselves.
If many admirers have sought narrative in Sander’s work, most have let certain awkward ideas cling to him–the concepts of the type and archetype, and the notion that he was a kind of sociologist who showed how Germany really looked. “What you have before you is … sociology. … Sander has succeeded in writing sociology photographs,” wrote Doblin, (27) yet Sander was willfully inexact. (28) Artists and small farmers are proportionally far more numerous in Menschen than they were in life, industrial workers fewer; there are none of the thousands of prostitutes who roamed Berlin and cannot have been scarce in Cologne. In reality, “sociology” is less a description of what Sander practiced than it is a metaphor: he was a subjectivist for whom it was natural to make impassioned symbolic gestures like ending Menschen with his lost son’s face.
Although his was among the most sachlich of the work of the Neue Sachlichkeit, (29) appeared “clinical” to Walker Evans and epitomized what Evans would one day call the “style” (30) of objectivity, it still faintly exudes the nauseous anxiety of Dix, Grosz and Schad–the “foul odor” as Zweig called it, of “the inner decomposition in Germany’s still open wound.” (31) In one picture (Painter, 1926, V/33/1) that Sander went into the Bismarckstrasse to make at dawn, (32) so that the street would be empty, Anton Raderscheidt wears the same bowler hat as the gentlemen in his own canvases who drift through the ominous squares of phantasmal cities. He poses as a bourgeois but is unconvincing–his topcoat flares effeminately and its lining distends from one sleeve, his bow tie is crooked, his arms dangle limply, he lacks the happy confidence of the holder of large balances and well-diversified properties. And then there is the long battalion of gray facades that surround him, interminable as death. This is one of the most Kafkaesque of photographs, no scientific datum but a portrait of the last civilized man in Europe, the bearer of an urgent message in a language no one understands.
“Type” and “archetype” bring us little further than “sociology,” though Sander used both words (distinguishing them vaguely). He had an absolute interest in the driverliness of drivers, the butcherliness of butchers, but he knew that his work reached beyond typology and subitled Menschen’s first section with a word of his own devising, Stammappe, which is usually translated as “the portfolio of archetypes” (a literal equivalent is “source portfolio”). Most of its 12 subjects belonged to the premodern rural village of the 1900s, and Sander renamed each one emblematically–either as “The Man of the Soil,” “The Philosopher,” “The Fighter of Revolutionary,” “The Sage,” “The Woman of Progressive Intellect,” or as a member of a “Farming Couple” that epitomized “Propriety and Harmony.” Long afterward, he would say grandly that he had “classified all the types [he] encountered in relation to one basic type, who had all the characteristics of mankind in general,” (33) handing down the murky idea of the archetype, which is still ubiquitous in talk about his work. It says more about iris ambitions than about his complex achievement. Indeed, archetype is an ill-fitting aim for photographs, which are wealthy in facts but weak in conveying abstractions. “The Sage” (I/ST/8) evokes much about corroded teeth, rheumatism, gastric violence and creeping blindness, but until we can see the woman in the picture speaking or acting wisely, only its title can keep us from imagining her a simpleton.
In a radio lecture of 1931, Sander said that he aimed to “create a physiognomic image of our nation and time.” (34) Physiognomy defines character, he had declaimed. All these large concepts, together with the grandiose structure of Menschen, suggest that Sander not only felt Weimar’s hunger for systematic knowledge, but also craved respectability; that he was like many early photographers, who were more sophisticated than their profession was held to be, and who sought to attach to their work the auras of literature or science. Menschen’s scheme is central to his enterprise, and his ideas about the “archetype,” “character” and “physiognomy” are all interesting, but all are, today, relics of Weimar more than they are useful lights to shine on his art.
It is important to recount a little more of life in Weimar Germany here because it is so strikingly absent from Sander’s or his critics’ comments. We come closer to understanding Sander when we measure what his photographs actually show against all they do not. No matter how clinically they pretend to offer the prospect of a whole society, they exclude most of the world, yet on what they exclude, the literature on Weimar is unequivocal. Golo Mann remembered “thirteen years of chaos and folly.” (35) Bernd Widdig recalls “a hellish carnival [of] plunderings and riots … painful hunger and wild gluttony … horrible misery of children, nude dancing, currency conjurers, hoarding…. occultism and psychics, … racketeering, jazz and drugs.” (36) The premier of France said vengefully in 1920, “I can wait for chaos to do its work.” Ordinary people felt that they lived and died by chance. (37)
The financiers responsible–Sander’s Banker of 1929 (IV/27/3) seems too young to have been one in 1923, but he could have been in training–were not interested in saving the mark [but] in its collapse.” (38) Many people lost all they had. “It was more than disorder … it was … like daily explosions,” wrote Elias Canetti; “everyone has a million and everyone is nothing.” (39) In December 1923 prices were 1.2 trillion times higher than in 1913, eggs cost as much as had all the land in Berlin, (40) and nine-tenths of a family’s money went for food. No adult in any Sander photograph after 1919 can have evaded the disaster, and while some profited, all would have felt its horror.
A chasm opened between the generations. Luxurious cars were driven by high-school boys “who [lived] from stock market tips and supported [their] embarrassed fathers.” (41) (Could some have looked like the Gymnasiast of 1926–VI/40/4–in his garish, reptilian suit?) Food riots exploded, masses of famished, irate men wandered the cities. (42) In 1932, 4 of 10 had no jobs. Counterfeiting was rampant. (Was the Pharmacist of 1930–IV/21/1–One of those shopkeepers who rang every coin on their counters?) Even in fine neighborhoods, mothers sifted the garbage for food. (43) (Did the mother in Working-class Woman and Child, ca. 1931–III/14/l0–descend to this?)
Crisis wrecked 17 governments in 13 years. There were 35 political parties, and in the Reichstag the right walked out when the left spoke. (But Sander’s Communists–IV/28/10–sit for him as fussily as cadets. Could they have been the same men who yelled “Rot Front!” and “Heil Moskau!” in the streets?) Almost absent from Sander is the erotic derangement that endures in legends of Weimar more strongly than almost anything else (44) and of which Zweig wrote that Berlin became “the Babel of the world”:
Along the entire Kurfurstendamm powdered and rouged
young men sauntered; … government officials and men of
the world of finance tenderly court[ed] drunken sailors
without any shame … hundreds of women dressed as men
danced under the benevolent eyes of the police…. (45)
To Hitler, the Germans’ misery was so deep that they seemed “seized by dizziness, … to have lost feeling and consciousness.” (46) Large numbers of people were abducted by self-appointed agents of justice, their skeletons to be unearthed in the woods years later. (47) “The air was heavy with … apocalypse” (48) and “saviors appeared … with long hair and hair shirts.” (49) (Sander has none, but he does present one Jerusalem Pilgrim, 1930–VI/38/5.)
As Christopher Isherwood wrote of the year 1931, rage:
exploded suddenly … at street corners, in restaurants cinemas,
dance-halls, swimming baths…. Knives were whipped
out, blows were dealt with spiked rings, beer-mugs, chair
legs of leaded clubs…. The newspapers were full of
death-bed photographs of rival martyrs, Nazi, Reichsbanner
and Communist. My pupils … shook their heads … “Dear,
dear!” they said. “It’s terrible. It can’t go on.” (50)
A year later, hall the economy was gone, and catastrophe stood by. There began then the “flight into hatred,” (51) whose results, as they have been memorialized, form one of the principal features of the modern Western mind. Haffner would write later of “the systematic infection of a whole nation,” (52) Zweig that no generation had ever experienced such a moral retrogression as his, (53) and Thomas Mann would say that “a straight line runs from the madness of the … inflation to the madness of the Third Reich.” (54) In 1932, it was still too early to say how deadly the infection was. What could be known was that three times as many people killed themselves in Germany as in England. (55)
One of them was Sander’s unbeautiful but beautifully hopeful Young Woman of 1929 (III/16/7), but she killed herself for love, (56) no more unusual reason, and this suggests that what we have just rehearsed of Weimar’s story is inadequate. Any recounting of extraordinary truths masks yet another truth–that most of the time the extraordinary is drowned out by the noise of ordinary life, where people worry over whether the mortgage can be closed at a good rate, whether the child will get over the flu before the birthday, if the dress fits well enough in the portrait the photographer just delivered–and where one learns about catastrophe and its omens from the press. Zweig, who turned 50 in 1931, found his contemporaries optimistic and trustful. “One cannot easily dispose of 30 or 40 years of deep faith in the world,” he wrote; “None of us thought that a thousandth part of what was to break upon us could be possible.” (57) The suffering young Haffner exiled himself from a Germany that had become lawless, but not before submitting to his father and completing his examinations in the law.
Circus Artist , German, 1930-1932
Both Zweig and Haffner were encouraged by the interval of Gustav Streseman’s chancellorship (1925-29), between the end of the inflation and the Wall Street crash, when economic recovery seemed possible, and when Sander made a very large number of his finest pictures. Haffner would write sadly that those five years contained “all … we have experienced of the sweetness of life,” (58) and although the republic’s survival for 13 years is often caned a miracle, this is probably overdramatic. Few people ever see what is coming because it comes gradually, with many deviations, and catastrophe is always far away until it is too near. There can be no truer prefiguring of Hannah Arendt’s account of “the banality of evil” (59) than the picture of one soft-skinned, well-fed Hauptsturmfuhrer–the SS Captain of 1937, IV/23a/9-who wore the image of a skull on his hatband and ordered 50 prints from Sander, to autograph and give as gifts, possibly at Christmas. (60)
Perhaps, then, we should not fault those who fail to connect Sander to the anguished world around him. He insistently photographed the ordinary in extraordinary times, times we find particularly so because we know of the cataclysm they preceded. Most of his subjects were not sought out by him but paid to have their photographs taken, and no one does this when the city’s walls are falling, only when he knows that Christmas will come soon and gifts will be needed. The circumspection of Sander’s portraits–their suppression of the extraordinary–has encouraged many people, including Sander himself, to seek their meaning in the immense and universal, or, conversely, to see them as transparent, to say that they simply show how Germany looked. Either way, we read his work poorly. He shows both far less and far more. Where he shows more it is through that alchemy by which the specific is made to evoke the general, but if we reject the foggy idea of “archetypes,” what is the generality of which he speaks?
One of the most perceptive comments we have on Sander is from Golo Mann, who said that his people are “noble,” meaning not that they were highborn, but that they presented themselves with dignified reserve whether their estates were large or small, that they required respect from the photographer and received it. “He shows them as they would wish to be known,” Mann wrote. (61) This would not be surprising in the generic portraiture out of which Sander grew, but it is scarce in the work of self-conscious modern artists, and indeed reverses a relationship between artist and subject that, in modern art, we so completely expect to find that we hardly think about it. It is a basic axiom of modernism that an artist must not only show us a thing, but, even more important, must show us how he alters it and so present us with the workings of consciousness. Sander’s descendants Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, for example, worked like examiners, critics, inquisitors. In Sander, however, Mann found a rare collusion between the subject and the artist, who does not fear that letting the subject appear “in a beautiful state” (62) will render the art shallow. Sander always lets his subjects wear their masks, and even the children do; he never tries to lift the skirt or sneak the curtain aside.
Nor is he ever ironic. No subject offers himself insincerely; many smile, some generously; no one is ridiculous; few fall into melodrama (Tenor, 1928, V/30/2, is unusual). Few are more vain than good taste would permit; no one wears the pathetic, excessively painted lips of Arbus’s Puerto Rican Woman with a Beauty Mark; the Art Dealer of 1927 (IV/27/7) has a sumptuous fur fedora and a perfect small mustache, but is so grave that he persuades us he has earned them. All but the ruined and the very poorest are nonetheless greatly attentive to clothing–and not only to its type and style, but to whether it sits correctly on the shoulders and falls gracefully from the waist. Most meet us in their Sunday wear, even if they are on open ground (see Young Farmers, 1914, 1/1/3), nor can this have been odd in days when even a bohemian would wear a tie and suit jacket down to the corner for smokes. Clothing–along with bearing–says everything about what Sander’s people wish for, hope they are and fear they are not; it also tells us much of Prussian correctness. A Sander subject often prefers his suit or her dress–to make his of her case. The inscrutable Notary of 1924 (IV/22/1) does not trouble to say what he is–his fine figure, his Doberman and his marvelous hat tell us. In many of Sander’s best photographs the face is a mask, but the clothes are a face.
Pastry Cook, 1928
There is in Sander no blazer, beard, Tyrolean hat, band-major’s jacket, satin dress, monocle, riding crop or lapdog that does not declare its wearer’s position to his fellows–no such duelist’s scars, brass buttons, Dutch klompen, Hitler armbands of bare feet. Even the bow ties and watch chains of the Midgets, ca. 1906-14 (VII/45/9) and the Cretin of 1924 (VII/45/8) are meant to show what funds the sitters command, what education they enjoy, how close to influence they are, what respect they are worth. Today, one wears a T-shirt even on the Kurfurstendamm, insisting one is unimprisoned by class, but in the ’20s and ’30s Germany was rigid with separations, which were deplored yet also thought to offer safety, for which everyone was desperate. A varnisher’s daughter would expect to marry a varnisher, probably not a steelworker, much less a radio technician, and while this meant that she had little chance of rising, she felt fairly safe from falling into the family of a laborer. People fear to sink now, too, but the chances that an Arbeitsloser–see Unemployed Worker, 1928 (S/M 409)–in Weimar could repair his life were vastly poorer.
Practically everyone in Sander is what Wager Benjamin called an etui-man–one who protects himself inside a box, of case: “The inside of the case is the velvet-lined track that he has imprinted on the world.” (63) Like Sander’s Farm Children (S/M 26), in their close-fitting doorways, a person was placed in a box of his own on the day he was born. “The officer’s wife did not associate with the wife of the teacher, nor the latter with the merchant’s nor she … with the wife of the workman.” (64) We must not think, however, that the arrangement of classes resembled their caricature in Marx; there were not two but a hundred gradations: “the skilled worker was superior to the unskilled one, [and] often … to the master craftsman…. Then there were the foremen and supervisors, managers and agents…. This was not one mass of people dominated by a few oppressors…. There were countless occupations and new titles.” (65)
The inflation and the Wall Street crash, as Canetti wrote, exploded in this intricate structure like bombs, and Weimar literature is full of the eager young clerk who, even us he labors earnestly to climb the stairway of class, slides down its well-greased treads to the gutter; of the lady forced to accept lodgers who can no longer pay but will not leave; of the innkeeper begging passersby in the road to stay. Yet if the daily pain of the Germans broke into violence in the streets and, over time, congealed into the hate on which Nazism fed, in daily life it was submerged beneath the stoical bearing of Prussia. How long has it been since the services of Sander’s notary were required with any frequency? His face will never betray him, and if he fears his coat will–it has begun to lose its shape from age–that is why he must fill it out like a tree trunk. As soon us we put Weimar’s air back into Sander’s portraits, we have to ask whether a central part of the stilted elegance of any person there is not his anxiety that the world will not cohere, that he may fail to hold his place, whether his stoicism is not the index of his shame.
“Rank, status and property …; they weigh heavily … and keep [men] firmly apart…. A man stands by himself … like a windmill on an enormous plain … nothing between him and the next mill…. In every sphere of life, firmly established hierarchies prevent him touching anyone more exalted than himself, or descending, except in appearance, to anyone lower” (66) This vision, which Canetti took out of the very same years when Sander was most fertile, brings us directly to the immense solitude of the people in all Sander’s best photographs–the Secretary at West German Radio (III/17/19), the portrait of Raderscheidt in the Bismarckstrasse, the Member of the Hitler Youth of ca. 1941 (IV/23a/6). The people in Sander are intelligent, fragile, singularly watchful, acutely individuated. They seem to want to be seen–they have placed themselves before the camera, after all–yet it also feels as if they will slip out of our sight before we ever have a chance to entreat them to stay. It is as if they know that we can do nothing for them, and sometimes, as in Young Mother, Middle class, 1926 (III/14/1)–and here the cool Sander breathes love and pity–that there is nothing they can do for themselves.
Sander’s highest talent was his ability to grasp this nexus of emotions, and it is always present when he is at his best; it is there in the noble blond fighter in Boxers, 1929 (I/7/8), even as his stumpy partner grins like a silly boy. Little originality, will be found in how Sander constructed his portraits: his lighting is flat, like the tone of his prints; he never stands close up or far away; he employs none of the montage, visual sleights or ingenious points of view that were popular; his subjects sit centrally in his frames much us people had in conventional portraits for centuries. Rather–and this at first seems odd since his subjects are standing still–his invention lies in how he stops time. In truth, few people ever really stand still. The human face is such a subtle expresser of meanings–it changes ceaselessly, and we are so sensitive to it–that it may convey defiance, and then, at the next moment, aching sympathy, depending on how the minutest pool of light shines in a person’s eye. For all Sander’s alertness to physiognomy, rank and costume, the heart of his work is a series of decisive moments.
Do his characters reveal anything of their depths? Mainly that they are hesitant to reveal much at all, but this is to reveal a lot. Weimar literature devotes many pages to matters of concealment–to the housemaid’s averted eyes, to the fine suit a man would wear if his losses had been large, to transvestism, clandestine casinos and secret murders. (In 1934 Hitler’s men decreed that anyone who talked, even in private, of secret murders would be punishable by secret murder.) “There is an unsolved riddle in the history of the creation of the Third Reich,” wrote Haffner, thinking as always of conscience, the moral cure, “much more interesting than the question of who set tire to the Reichstag. It is … ‘What became of the Germans?’” (67) Though Sander cannot possibly answer, we can feel the Germans shrinking from us in his pictures, arrested by him for just a moment as they do.
Haffner went on to say that “private lives, emotions and thoughts … [were where] … the fight [was] taking place in Germany,” (68) that “Germany leads a double life because almost every German leads a double life.” (69) We cannot know if the struggle to keep decency alive was occurring in any one of Sander’s people; indeed, we must doubt that any could have seen into the person on the next page much better than we can. When we finally read the work in its full depth, and see that Sander’s subjects’ impassivity is not neutral but full of meaning, then the interstices between his photographs cease to seem empty, and swell with mistrust.
Where people cannot trust they may turn to the police, of even turn into them, and in time, as Haffner despondently wrote, “each … of us [became] the Gestapo of the others.” (70) The Nazis, who loved secrecy but detested privacy, determined to make Germany a close, dissensionless family, like that Erich Maria Remarque evoked when he wrote in 1914, “It is as though formerly we were coins of different provinces; and now we [were] melted down….” (71) One Nazi said, as if looking with revulsion at Sander’s photographs, that he hoped for a day when Germans might not be judged according to their suits, but when “it would be the man that counted.” (72) He forgot, of course, that the Nazis loved costume more than anyone. Once in power, they would invent a uniform for every job in their government.
Photographs often promise to tell stories, but they seldom deliver. They show far more detail than we could ever remember had we not brought a camera to a scene–more, actually, than we usually see–and we meet them with the inclination, deeply entrenched, to try to work the world’s details into a sequential, causal order. It is hard not to wonder if Sander’s Arbeitsloser again found work, perhaps just up the alley, but photographs are cripples at outcomes: sound, movement, past, future, the words inside the brain, the memories and expectations we forever overlay on the present–the material of narration is mostly beyond them. Though many people have felt that what photographs cannot show must be remedied with captions, (73) the poetic ambiguity born in the imbalance between photography’s overabundant detail and its poverty in everything else is the medium’s true gift to the modern arts. It was Sander’s great intuition that the sweet uncertainLy native to photography might be put to work with the terrible uncertainties that characterized Germany in his time, and that this collaboration might yield the distilled pathos of indecision and fear, of the urgency of every moment and the impermanence of all we most intensely love.
To call Sander a taxonomist trivializes him. It is not that the Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, that elaborate contraption, does not show us a version of Germany, but that, as a literal inventory, it could only be terribly incomplete. (74) If, on the other hand, we let Menschen be a sort of overlarge, ungainly symbol, it blossoms with meaning. It becomes, then, a hypothetical society, one that might work if its people’s differences could only be contained. If we allow this, Menschen’s scarcity of prostitutes, criminals, barons and divas suddenly makes sense, because not they but the ones the book chiefly shows–the unexotic, worried people of the skilled working class and the bourgeoisie–are precisely those into whose too-shaky hands the Weimar Republic entrusted itself, and whose failure still reverberates today.
If anything, Sander would seem to have wished them success–to have hoped for prosperity and mutual respect; for inflation and violence to be suppressed and charismatic politicians restrained–but the question of whether success was possible could never be answered by photographs. Answers are usually delivered with less refinement, and when they came to Germany, that country had already left the ordinary and come, in shock, into the extraordinary; answers were provided to Erich Muhsam in Oranienburg with the injection of the poison that ended him; to the impenetrable, already conquered Jews of Menschen (VI/44/1-12), when they were converted into ashes, or else had to run for their lives; and by British bombers to Sander’s Cologne, which burned so fiercely that the orange smear of it, floating in black night, could still be seen from beyond the Dutch coast by one tail-gunner as he flew home over the Channel. (75)
In Sander’s place and time, much was said loudly of heroes, glory, principles and great leaders, the prowess of soldiers and the mission of the nation, but each of his photographs debunks all this with the intransigent ordinariness of the person in it, which is probably why the Nazis (apart from the fact that they were comprehensively demolishing much of their country’s record of humanity and intelligence) tried to abolish Antlitz der Zeit. (76) The Nazis were at work replacing the anguished, frantic air of Weimar with a sweltering reek of kitsch patriotism. They could never have admired the insecure stateliness with which Sander’s people inhabit their worlds–that strained, dissonant composite of pride and dread that seems so familiar to us, who live far more safely than they did but forever less so than we think.
Are Sander’s people really noble, as Golo Mann wrote? Though we cannot say, they do display the hope that they are, and though irresolution is not beautiful itself, it does contain the chance of nobility among its innumerable seeds. Far behind the masks his men and women called their faces is kept the innermost self of the self, where intention accumulates as slowly as a century passes, and so much is dark that while we often feel powerfully another person’s essence, we can never say what it is. The gathering up of decision resides there, intangible. No one can guess which way it will fall. It is what most concerns Sander’s finest pictures. Except for them, one would have thought that nothing so fugitive could ever be trapped in art.
The author sincerely thanks Gabrielle Conrath-Scholl, Peter Fritzsche, Susanne Lange, Molly Nolan, David Rubinfien and Gerd Sander for their help with this essay.
(1.) Stefaa Zweig, The World of Yesterday, New York, Viking Press, 1943, p. 220.
(2.) Bernd Widdig, Culture and Inflation in Weimar Germany, Berkeley, University of California Press, 2001, pp. 86-87.
(3.) Zweig, pp. 311-12.
(4.) Joseph Roth, What I Saw: Reports from Berlin, 1920-1933, New York, Norton, 2002, p. 159.
(5.) Theodore Abel, Why Hitler Came into Power, New York, Prentice Hall, 1938, p. 153.
(6.) Christopher Isherwood, “On Ruegen island,” in The Berlin Stories, New York, New Directions, 1963, p. 86.
(7.) Details of Muhsam’s torture can be found in a 1934 pamphlet by the Carlo Pisacane Group of Paris, an anarchist circle, at web.hamline.edu/personal/jgeorge/erich.html.
(8.) Sebastian Haffner, Defying Hitler, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003, pp. 250, 246.
(9.) August Sander, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts: edited by Gunther Sander, text by Ulrich Keller, Munich, Schirmer/Mosel, 1980. Soldier is dated 1945 in the 1980 Menschen’s first German language printing (though not in later printings). This book also includes many superb photographs that do not appear in the “complete” 2002 edition, photographs Sander himself chose to exclude but which his son correctly judged worthy of publication.
(10.) Where the subject was well known, Sander would sometimes include his or her initials. One such title is Der Komponist (P.H.) um 1925, referring to the composer Paul Hindemith. The 2902 Menschen often gives full names.
(11.) Many other Weimar artists did similarly; Brecht, for example, often named a character in a play simply “Soldier,” “Girl” or “Mother.”
(12.) Some historians say the republic lasted 15 years, but all agree that it is hard to be precise. Fifteen years passed between the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm in 1919 and Hitler’s ascension in 1934, but the republican constitution was not promulgated immediately after the Kaiser’s departure, and it was suspended before Hitler became chancellor. The uncertainty has to do with which of these events one considers to mark the republic’s start and end.
(13.) John Szarkowski, “August Sander: The Portrait as Prototype,” Infinity, June 1963, p. 23.
(14.) Ernst Bloch, Erbschaft dieser Zeit, 1935, as quoted by Keller in Sander’s 1980 Menschen, p. 58, note 113.
(15.) Roth, p. 101.
(16.) Alfred Doblin, epigraph to The Weimar Republic: The Crisis of Classical Modernity, by Detlev Peukert, New York, Hill and Wang, 1978.
(17.) Golo Mann, The History of Germany Since 1789, New York, Praeger, 1968, p. 368.
(18.) Ibid., p. 349.
(19.) Ibid., p. 359. Rathenau, an heir to the electrical combine AEG, was prominent in economic and political life in the republic’s first years. He served as minister for reconstruction in 1919-21 and foreign minister in 1922. He is often associated with the urbane liberalism of the Jewish bourgeoisie, with Germany’s opening to Europe and America, and with the inflation. Rathenau was shot in 1922 by militants of the far right.
(20.) Peter Gay, Weimar Culture: The Outsider as Insider, New York, Norton, 2001, p. 20.
(21.) Andy Jones, “Reading August Sander’s Archive,” Oxford Art Journal, 2000, no. 1, and Keller, in Menschen.
(22.) August Sander, as quoted by Christoph Schreier, in August Sander: “In Photography There Are No Unexplained Shadows!”, Gerd Sander, ed., London, National Portrait Gallery, 1996, p. 2.
(23.) As cited by Schreier, ibid., p. 5.
(24.) This idea is most emphatically promoted by Keller in Menschen, p. 37.
(25.) Walter Benjamin once strained to find in Sander some of the sentiments of the left. More recently Allan Sekula, forcing the issue even harder, has managed to call Sander a reactionary. See Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography,” in Classic Essays on Photography, Alan Trachtenberg, ed., New Haven, Leete’s island Books, 1980, p. 210, and Allan Sekula, “The Traffic in Photographs,” in Photography Against the Grain, Halifax, Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984.
(26.) See especially Jones.
(27.) Alfred Doblin, “Faces, Images and Their Truth,” as published in August Sander, 1876-1964, Manfred Heiting, ed., London, Taschen, 1999, p. 102.
(28.) Sander is not himself known to have used the word “sociology” (Gesellschaftskunde) to characterize his work. Peter Fritzsche has pointed out, however, that the sociological approach to knowledge boomed in Germany in the ’20s, through numerous statistical and theoretical works. That Weimar critics called Sander a “sociologist” and that he absorbed the esthetic of sociology was consistent with the spirit of the moment.
(29.) This is so if we take sachlich to mean “reportorial”–just one of its senses.
(30.) Evans called Sander’s photographs “clinical” when reviewing Antlitz (“The Reappearance of Photography,” Hound and Hern, #5, October-December 1931). Over time, however, he abandoned the idea of absolute objectivity, speaking, instead, of the “style” of the documentary (see Leo Rubinfien, “The Poetry of Plain Seeing,” Art in America, December 2000).
(31.) Zweig, p. 358. Zweig was not speaking here of Neue Sachlichkeit art per se, but of what Germans felt about their never-reconciled defeat in the Great War, the loss of their old order and the calamity of the inflation. That emotion is, however, at the core of the major German painting of the period.
(32.) Gabrielle Conrath-Scholl, research associate at the Photographic Archive, Cologne, Susanne Lange, director of the archive, and Gerd Sander, its collector and co curator, have generously provided information here and on other points.
(33.) Untitled statement by August Sander, in August Sander, Manfred Heiting, ed., p. 26.
(34.) Transcribed and published in August Sander, “Photography as a Universal Language,” Massachusetts Review, Winter 1978, pp. 677-78.
(35.) Golo Mann, The History of Germany, p. 345.
(36.) Widdig, p. 7.
(37.) Abel, pp. 40, 59.
(38.) Golo Mann, The History of Germany, p. 357. The large loans these financiers held from foreign banks were denominated in marks; as the value of the currency fell so did the real size of their debt.
(39.) Elias Canetti, Crowds and Power, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1984, p. 186.
(40.) Zweig, p. 294.
(41.) Haffner, p. 50.
(42.) Abel, pp. 16, 124.
(43.) Widdig, p. 115.
(44.) Keller speculates that Sander “dial net date” to bring a camera into the dangerous world of prostitutes that was so central in the work of Dix and Grosz, but mentions that he intended to make a series of pictures in cabarets; Keller, in Menschen, p. 46.
(45.) Zweig, p. 313.
(46.) Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, New York, Mariner Books, 1971, p. 226.
(47.) Haffner, p. 63.
(48.) Peukert, p. 231.
(49.) Haffner, p. 63.
(50.) Christopher Isherwood, “The Last of Mr. Norris,” in The Berlin Stories, p. 86.
(51.) Marlin Broszat, as quoted by Peter Fritzsche, Germans into Nazis, Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1998, p. 157.
(52.) Haffner, p. 143.
(53.) Zweig, p. xviii.
(54.) Thomas Mann, “Inflation,” as quoted by Widdig, p. 19.
(55.) Peukert, p. 278.
(56.) This information per Gabrielle Conrath-Scholl.
(57.) Zweig, pp. 192, 364-65.
(58.) Haffner, p. 77.
(59.) Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, New York, Viking, 1963.
(60.) This information per Gabrielle Conrath-Scholl.
(61.) Golo Mann, “Zu Diesem Heft,” Da, #225, November 1959, p. 12.
(63.) Walter Benjamin, “The Destructive Character,” in Reflections, New York, Schocken, 1978, p. 302.
(64.) Haffner, p. 41.
(65.) Golo Mann, The History of Germany, p. 205.
(66.) Canetti, pp. 18-19.
(67.) Haffner, p. 184.
(68.) Ibid., pp. 135, 185.
(69.) Ibid., p. 99.
(70.) Ibid., p. 268.
(71.) Erich Marta Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front, New York, Fawcett, 1982, p. 272.
(72.) Abel, p. 249.
(73.) Benjamin, for one, believed that photography’s future lay with captions; that hybrid works of words and pictures would supersede photographs as he knew them. See Benjamin, “A Short History of Photography.”
(74.) Nor was Sander original, as he is often said to have been, in identifying people by trade–the City Directories also did that, as did Weimar’s massive demonstrations, where electricians marched under the electricians’ banner, welders under the welders’, etc.
(75.) As recounted to W.G. Sebald, cited in his On the Natural History of Destruction, New York, Random House, 2003, p. 22.
(76.) Sander does not seem to have been singled out, by the way. The entire catalogue of his publisher, Kurt Wolff, was similarly banned.
The publication of the full Menschen has come with exhibitions of original Sander prints from the Archive at the following institutions: the Photographic Archive of the SK Cultural Foundation, Cologne [September. November 2001]; the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland [January-March 2002]; the Rapertinum, Salzburg [May-July, 2002]; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art [November 2002 February 2003]; the Martin-Gropius-Bau, Berlin [Oct. 10, 2003 Jan. 11, 2004]; the Stadel Museum, Frankfurt [Feb. 4-Apr. 11, 2004]; and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York [May 24 Sept. 19, 2004].
Author Leo Rubinfien is a photographer and the author of A Map of the East and 19 Takeoffs 5 Landings.
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