August Sander was born in a small town, Herdorf, just north of the Westerwald area, where a large body of his photographic work was done. In the early 1920’s he adopted a detached approach to his portraits, a style which was quite favoured by the European New Objectivity artists.
He had a set methodology to his photography making. He would photograph his subjects in sharp focus, like one would architecture, in full or half length. He posed them with props or articles of their professions to provide some context to what they did for a living. His subjects would face the camera directly showing no emotion. Apparently a show of emotion was frowned upon, indicating that the sitter was distracted or did not have sufficient self control. Sander tended to place his subjects in the centre of the frame.
Most often, when shooting outdoors, the background was in soft focus, sometimes sufficiently blurred to render it unrecognizable as can be seen in The Sage above and further providing depth to the image. In this portrait Sander has chosen to crop in close to the subject’s face and focus on the old man’s distinctive features. The background is quite far from the subject. The soft focus of the background only serves to enhance his character lines around his eyes more strongly. Although the subject has a dispassionate look, there is a still look of understanding and wisdom in the old man’s eyes. We see that the Sage’s smock is coarsely woven and rather dirty, while his felt hat sits rather crumpled upon his head, a further indication of his humble profession. Jeffrey (2008 p.74) describes an interesting back story to this photo:
“… Sander recalled a herdsman from his childhood who took the village cattle … into the forest in springtime to graze. This happened on a daily basis. Children took food to him at midday and he told them stories and spoke about the forest and its plants. He had a reputation as a wizard. This man probably reminded Sander of that herdsman of his childhood.”
In contrast, Sander shows the Itinerant Mason in full length, standing next to a pile of rocks, indicating his trade to the viewer. The mason is dressed rather incongruously for a labourer as he is wearing a bowler hat, light coloured trousers and a vest, complete with a fancy chain, over a working shirt, topped off with a warm jacket. A bag of some sort is slung over his shoulder, probably containing his tools, while he carries a roughly hewn walking stick in his other hand. Scuffed boots round up the outfit. We might presume that the photograph was taken on a Sunday when the subject was wearing his best clothes. The mason stares solidly out at the photographer or us, the viewers, his face devoid of any expression, almost like a mask. The road he is traveling along is lined with trees and curves off to the right behind him, suggesting that he might still have a way to travel on his journey. Although the background in this photograph is slightly blurred, it is still very distinctive and provides the viewer with more than sufficient information to realise that this is a man on a journey.
Another of Sander’s tropes was the way in which he had his subjects pose with their hands. Very often men would put a hand in their pocket, or pose with a hand on their stomach tucked under a jacket, Napoleon style, or keep their hands out of sight totally – the majority of them looking rather contrived and uncomfortable. In my opinion, Sander’s most successful portraits are those where the men, in particular, have been allowed to pose with both hands visible, albeit on different levels.
Jeffrey, Ian (2008). How to Read a Photograph. New York: Abrams.
Angier, Roswell (2015). Train Your Gaze | A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography. London: Bloomsbury
Warner Marien, Mary (2014) Photography: A Cultural History. London: Laurence King Publishing