August Sander and His Unfinished Visual Symphony

The Getty Museum has, once again, brought out gold from its massive photography collection.
This time it’s from the German Portraitist, August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century
From the early 1900’s to before WWII he traveled his view camera from city to farmland posing his subjects with appropriate wardrobe and accoutrement to show respect and place them in a proper societal category.

Farmer from the Westerwald, 1910
This image above also illustrated the power and beauty of a silver print. If you can, you should see it in person

The exhibit covers a social examination that was his dream project illustrating a class system in Germany that he also felt reflected common human conditions.

It’s a brilliant rich exhibit, shown in one of the premier galleries currently in existence.

There is a “but” here, though. The website descriptors give you a full overview and break down August Sanders massive social project, unfinished as it was.

However, as is the case with many art historians, there is a tendency to over analyze and perhaps assume too much knowledge about specific images, and it is related on the descriptor cards at the exhibit, and sometimes on the site.

Case in point:


From the Getty:
” In this family portrait featuring publisher Otto Schmidt and his sisters, each of the four siblings conveys a sense of individuality while still appearing connected to the others. On the left, a shy, bespectacled girl avoids gazing directly into the camera’s lens. As a result, the viewer sees only her blushing profile. A sister sits behind her, on a higher seat that emphasizes her status as the eldest. In the front, a confident sister looks directly into the camera. On the right, their brother leans in, as if trying to assert himself. They all wear modest, conservative attire, appropriate for this middle-class family.

August Sander posed the sitters in a compositionally balanced way that underscored their familial ties. He specifically avoided seating the brother in center or the rear, which would have determined his role as the family patriarch. “

Now having been in, and taken family portraits, sometimes it just happens that the seating and pose occur in the moment.
Yes, style and current methods will come to bear, but as Freud would say ” Sometimes a cigar, is just a cigar.”
In other words, when someone looks away from the camera, is it a deep seated desire to disconnect from the world, or did the profile happen to make a more striking visual? You can surmise relationships between the subjects, but they may not be a directive from the photographer.

One more part of the exhibit had some interesting observations.

Sanders livelihood included, not surprisingly, portraits taken at clients homes, or on their property. Now some of the farmers had dressed up in their best attire for the portraits, as opposed to their more casual attire. This became attributed to a desire to present another view to the world of a different reality.
OK, correct me if I’m wrong…..when anyone is sitting for a formal portrait, whether it’s a kid being shot at the local Sears, to a regal family portrait by Lord Snowdon, you present the best image you can.
Did that 6 year boy in his holiday picture usually wear a jacket and bowtie? Nope. Maybe at church.Once.
To assume more than human nature on the part of the subjects, in their desire to preserve a moment in time that they perceived to be their best foot forward, is a little over indulgent.
Think of the celebrities that prepare for the red carpet knowing this will be a moment in time they have control of, as opposed to paparazzi who may photograph them in their street gear.

At the end of the day here is the point: the value of these photographs is intrinsically linked to the Germany of the time, and posed or not, gives a viewpoint of a class system that photographed every subject with intelligence and respect.

The viewer can come to their own conclusions. This time the Getty did themselves a disservice by giving too much in the descriptor cards by the individual photographs.

A show not to be missed, but perhaps read the website and the cards on site, with a simpler eye.

I appreciate art historians, but have always felt that art should touch you first. The additional knowledge can enhance, but sometimes it’s like explaining a joke.
Yes, I know. Not an intellectual. Ahh well.

One of my favorite images of August Sanders’ was not in the show, however.

The Bricklayer

I originally saw this in the book, The Family Of Man when I was 8 years old. From the first time I saw this photograph it never left me.
I hope you find an image for yourself in his work.

And there is a huge bonus at the Getty:

Ten Years in Focus: The Artist and the Camera
March 25–August 10, 2008

Along with a celebration of the last 10 years of aquiring photographs, there are some standout images you will see no where else, like Daguerretypes of Egypt , from 1842, that have been kept in a private collection for years, and one of our favorite pieces;

David Hockney : Pearblossom Hwy., 11 – 18th April 1986, #2, in all of its original glory.

© 1986 David Hockney

Its a good time to visit the Getty Musuem.

On Line click here : Getty
Or click here if you are going to visit.

Damon Webster


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