People of the Twentieth Century

I was at the Photomuseum in Amsterdam (Foam) yesterday. It hosts an exhibition on the German photographer August Sander. Born exactly a century before I was born, in 1876, Sander in the 1920s began work on a series of portraits later entitled “People of the Twentieth Century.”

Young farmers (1914); Middle-class Children (1925); Secretary at West German Radio (1931). Photos from the Foam website.

Sander’s project was to portray the people of the Weimar Republic. Dividing his sitters into seven social types — the Farmer; the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman (yes, she’s in a category of her own); Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City and the Last People — he never listed the names of the people he photographed, but only recorded their occupation or activity.

Whereas the commercial portraits he made in his shop were romantic and more soft-focus, the portraits he produced in Cologne and the countryside of Westerwald are very sharp and crisp, in the objective style of the Neue Sachlichkeit. The author Alfred Döblin his introduction to the first volume of portraits, Antlitz der Zeit, emphasizes the scientific nature of Sander’s work:

Just as there is comparative anatomy, which helps us to understand the nature and history of organs, so this photographer is doing comparative photography, adopting a scientific standpoint superior to that of the photographer of detail. [1]

The classificatory politics of Sander’s project have according to A. Jones (writing in the Oxford Art Journal) been considered problematic, even as bordering on the proto-fascist. The Nazis, however, were none too pleased with the project, and destroyed a number of Sander’s negatives.

Although Sander divides his portraits into categories, the seriality of his project emphasizes equality more than anything else. The aristocrat shares a wall with the cook and the working student — all are portrayed as individuals in their own right, and all look equally self-assuredly into the lens.

Walter Benjamin in his Little History of Photography praised the project for its political use of the new medium of photography.

Work like Sander’s could overnight 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. [2]

I am not sure what Benjamin means in this passage — if society is about to change, and both Left and (fascist) Right see the old hierarchies as no longer relevant, then why does he still advocate the project as a training manual for recognizing people’s provenance? Does he mean provenance in terms of profession, rather than class perhaps?

[1] Alfred Döblin, introduction to Antlitz der Zeit, p. vi. Cited in Walter Benjamin, “Little History of Photography” (1931) in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 2, 1931-1934, edited by Michael W. Jennings et al., translated by Rodney Livingstone et al. (Cambridge, MA: The Belknapp Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), p. 520.

[2] Benjamin, “Little History of Photography,” ibidem.

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One thought on “People of the Twentieth Century

  1. Pingback: Investigations of a Dog » The 46th History Carnival

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