In response to Sander’s work, try to create a photographic portraiture typology which attempts to bring together a collection of types. Think carefully about how you wish to classify these images; don’t make the series too literal and obvious.
Once completed, post these portraits on your blog or in your learning log, with a written statement contextualising the work.
In studying August Sander’s portraits, I found myself rather drawn to the portraits that he made of couples, such as the images of young siblings below.
I work at a university that is staffed by a large international population so I persuaded some of my colleagues, faculty and students to pose in pairs for me. This work is a spin-off from the Context and Narrative’s assignment 3 in which my self-portrait assignment concentrated on immigration. My only criteria was that both people in the photograph should be from the same country and that they shouldn’t smile. Locations were chosen in and outside the campus. I followed Sander’s posing methods, having my subjects stand close together in a similar fashion to the images above. I relied on natural lighting outdoors and used my flash indoors. My subjects found it rather difficult to keep a detached expression on their faces. I decided to convert all the images to black and white to further introduce some ambiguity into the images. Skin tones and hair colouring are a little misleading in black and white images. With their somewhat deadpan expressions and static poses, my subjects draw the viewer into the frame in search of something familiar he/she might recognize. I found that, by removing my subjects from their place of work i.e. desk, or classroom, and photographing them in other surroundings, their indexicality was reinforced. At the same time the two grids below depict a microcosm of the multiculturalism that exists in Vancouver.
My ethnicity typologies in Vancouver are below.
The individual photos can be accessed below.
Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. Oxford: Berg
Jeffrey, Ian (2008) How to Read a Photograph | Lessons from Master Photographers. New York: Abrams
Kozloff, M. (2007) The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press
In preparation for Part 4 of this module we are asked to take a look at the work of Douglas Huebler, entitled Variable Piece No. 101. For this work Huebler make a series of portraits of Bernd Becher, using typologies that correspond almost directly to that used by August Sander (Hughes, 2007). Huebler asked Becher to pose in the following order to depict these types: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artists, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy and a nice guy” (Hughes, 2007).
After a few months had passed Huebler sent a differently ordered list and copies of the prints in no particular order to Becher and asked him to match the prints with the captions. Becher’s returned list came back as: “1. Bernd Becher; 2. Nice Guy; 3. Spy; 4. Old Man; 5. Artist; 6. Policeman; 7. Priest; 8. Philosopher; 9. Criminal; 10. Lover” (Hughes, 2007).
This explanation together with the prints, in the order that Becher returned them to Huebler, form the Variable Piece #101, which was exhibited at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art in 1995-96 in the exhibition Reconsidering the Object of Art and also at another exhibition in Limoges, France in 1992-93. However, in neither of the exhibitions is the original order of prints revealed. The Limoges prints, though, are numbered and seem to correspond to Becher’s associations. But we can see that the set of images are not quite the same. The first and the third images in both sets are different, creating a further complication in reading the images. Normally one would expect a caption to illustrate truthfully what the image is, but in Huebler’s work, this is confused.
For in the fight for “final form: between the photographs and the statement – a fight the statement clearly loses – Huebler signals exactly that which his photographic portraits undermine with exacting precision: the attempt to fix the work, and the person depicted therein onto a static and invariable ground. It is not just the “final form” of Variable Piece #101 that is simultaneously asserted and denied, in other words: it is also the “final form” of Bernd Becher.
By placing his portraits of Becher in a grid pattern, Huebler is paying homage to the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Bernd and Hilla Becher’s photographs of water towers were made “flatly, objectively, and systematically, devoid of subjective depth and physiognomic resonance” (Hughes, 2007). But at the same time, he is also presenting us with images that are the exact opposite of Becher’s work. The portraits are depicting different personalities; Becher is distorting his face into a variety of strange expressions, eliciting some type of emotion from the viewer, what Hughes (2007) refers to as “the overly expressive, near-histrionic emotionalism of New York School photography à la Arbus, Avedon, et alia.” Huebler effectively cancels out both methods by mixing them together.
Shuffling the order of his images is something that Huebler employs in the majority of his work. In an interview in 1992 he states: “I have always scrambled my photographic presentations so that ‘time’ would not be read through a series of sequential events but rather as an all-over field … which translates the particular into unity” (Hughes, 2007).
We notice in Huebler’s Variable #101 that he plays around with semiotics. His signifier does not match up to the signified, he has reordered the meanings and the sign is now confused.
A portrait does not reveal the identity of a person in its entirety. As Barthes (1981, p. 10) so aptly states: “Once i feel myself observed by the lens, everything changes; I constitute myself in the process of ‘posing.’ I instantly make another body for myself, I transform myself in advance into an image.” In Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 Hughes (2007) reflects that it “programmatically conceals the (already) concealed relation between identity and its representation” … and “is personified in his portraits of Becher.”
Huebler’s work effectively turns the tables onto Becher himself. Becher’s photographic practice was one of photographing architectural structures, devoid of any subjective content, or people, employing August Sander’s methods of dispassionate photography. By displaying his photos in a grid he was inviting comparisons in the similarity of the structures. He also collaborated with his wife and this created an anonymous body of work effectively suppressing the author’s individuality. Huebler “voids Sander’s typological categories as Becher makes faces for the camera” (Hughes, 2007).
Huebler’s Variable Piece #101 collapses the connection between image and text and thereby creates more mystery around the identity of Bernd Becher. Even Becher himself seems to be confused about his own identity. Indeed, there is no way we can guess which set of images and captions is correct unless we are privy to the original sequence, to which we are denied access. As Hughes (2007) sums up: “But like Bernd Becher, we can only guess who is who, never knowing when we are right and when we are wrong.”
Barthes, Roland (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.
Hughes, Gordon (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66 (4), 52-69.
Jason Evans is not a photographer I have come across before. He worked under the pseudonym ‘Travis’ and his work first appeared in fashion and lifestyle magazines.
It seems that his work was rather similar to Bill Cunningham in that he would go out and photograph fashion on the street. In his Strictly series, he has photographed a series of young black men in a variety of fashions out on the streets. His style is very much like that of August Sander. The subject stands unposed, looking directly at the camera with a dispassionate expression on the face. Evans shoots from a low vantage point thus seeming to give the subjects a sense of power as the viewer has to look up to them, a possible metaphor for the absent catwalk where viewers also have to look up to the models parading the latest fashions. Evans was intrigued by the nineteenth century dandy and this series of work portrays the contemporary dandy in his eyes.
Unlike Cunningham, however, Evans used a stylist in the production of this series. His stylist was responsible for putting the clothes together, doing location scouts and finding the models. The clothes worn by Evans’ contemporary dandies are a strange mix of British tailoring, preppy and sportswear and are very eclectic rather than fashionable. But the outfits would definitely not be out of place on the streets of New York, nor would they seem strange in a place where anything goes.
“The syntax of the clothes was completely upside down,” Evans said of the work. “It was a new vision of Britain. We were trying to break down stereotypes.”
(Evans quoted in Val Williams, Look at Me: Fashion and Photography 1960 to the Present, exhibition catalogue, British Council, London, 1998, p.113)
Although the work in this series was primarily for fashion photography, the photographs could very easily fit into other genres, such as street photography or documentary.
It is only a few months down the road that I did an exercise on Diane Arbus for the Context and Narrative module. My posting can be seen here.
Diane Arbus was born in 1923 in New York to Russian Jewish immigrants, David and Gertrude Nemerov. Her father owned a women’s clothing and fur store and she grew up in an affluent home, quite sheltered from the world. She went on to marry Allan Arbus and together they worked together in fashion photography. Together they achieve success, having their work published in magazines such as Glamour, Vogue and Seventeen. Diane Arbus tired of fashion photography and decided to study photography with Alexey Brodovitch. Not liking his workshops she signed up to study with Lizette Model who was her great influence. Arbus had six photos published in Esquire Magazine in 1960 and another five in Harper’s Bazaar in 1961. However, her big break came when John Szarkowski exhibited thirty two of her portraits alongside works by Garry Wingogrand and Lee Friedlander at MOMA in the New Documents exhibition. Arbus was labelled as ‘a photographer of “the margins of society”‘ by Newsweek (Lord p.113). She committed suicide in 1971.
Catherine Lord’s essay: ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ (Bolton, 1992), discusses Patricia Bosworth’s unauthorized biography on Diane Arbus in great length, extrapolating large sections that are solely based on hyperbole and supposition. The book has no bibliography or footnotes whatsoever. It seems that much of the urban myths surrounding Arbus originate from this book. In a radio interview with Studs Terkel a couple of years before taking her own life, Arbus talks about the sheltered life she led and makes an interesting statement that reveals her ongoing problems with her self-confidence:
When I make money on a photo I assume it isn’t good.
Arbus approached her work like a journalist, but at the same time she was introspective. She was drawn lookalikes i.e. twins or people resembling celebrities. She was also drawn to people in marginalized societies and freaks.
It is the strained distance between the subjects of her photographs that grabs the viewer. Her work is “investigative, but far too personal to be documentary; it is portraiture, but with a super-abundance of narrative and allegory” (Kozloff, p. 197).
One can see all these elements in Fig. 1. The young man with a remarkable resemblance to Malcolm X sits on a park bench with his arm awkwardly hooked around the neck of his pregnant wife. She is wearing cat eye spectacles, that were very popular in the 60’s and has a large beehive piled on top of her head, in an Elizabeth Taylor fashion and looks older and more sophisticated than him. His head is leaning towards her’s, but her head is straining away. He does not sit close to her, there is a large gap between their torsos. Her arm is stretched out over the gap and held in place on his leg by his other hand. Both subjects look at the camera/viewer, his expression is one of defiance, her’s is one of embarrassment. This photo was taken during the American civil rights movement and this couple would have qualified as the marginalized people that Arbus was drawn to, as interracial marriages was only fully legalized in all the US States in 1967.
Kazloff, Max (2007). The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900. London: Phaidon Press. pp. 196-199
Lord, Catherine (n.d.) ‘What Becomes a Legend Most: The Short, Sad Career of Diane Arbus’ In: Bolton, Richard (ed.) The Context of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography: Cambridge: MIT Press. pp. 111-123
Make a portrait of someone you know, paying very close attention to what is happening in the background of the shot. Be very particular about how you pose the subject and what you choose to include in the photograph. Ideally the background should tell the viewer something about the subject being photographed.
For this portrait I chose to photograph my son, who is a plumber. A plumber’s job is very often performed in narrow, confined spaces and shooting in these spaces are quite challenging as well as there is not a lot of room, or choice of where to stand. In order to get a frontal view of the plumber, I had him pose sitting on the edge of the bath, while working on the toilet cistern. He is very tall so I needed to reduce him in height to fit into my frame. Ideally, I would have preferred to have my flash off camera to obtain a softer shadow, but the overhead lighting was casting the same shadow, so I decided to work with it. The shiny tiles, bar of soap and shampoo bottle provide the background context for the bathroom, while the foreground confirms the location.
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