Background as Context: August Sander

Cabinet Maker

Cabinet Maker – Steve Middlehurst 2015

As previously discussed (here) August Sander’s body of work is huge, his archive includes 40,000 photographs and many others were destroyed by the Nazis to by the Allied bombing of Cologne. I have restricted my analysis of his compositional techniques to the sixty photographs published in Face of our Time (1) (Antlitz der Zeit). This is his own selection and covers the years 1912 to 1929. Gerry Badger calls it a “preliminary report” for  his magnum opus People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts), a project he never finished nor published.

Even though he continued to make portraits until the 1940’s, after the plates for Face of our Time were seized by the Nazis in 1936 he concentrated on landscape and architectural photography so, in practice, these sixty plates cover a large part of his portraiture career.

Summary of Exercise Answers

Before I look in more detail at the sixty included portraits I will endeavour to answer the specific questions posed by this exercise.

Where does the subject sit in relation to the background? Of the 60 plates in face of our time 27 are pure studio or makeshift studio shots. The subject is placed relatively close to the backdrop but it is usually well lit to avoid floating heads but leaving the subject distinct. For the other interior shots there is no general rule, some have a darkened room behind the subject and some a bright room which provides context.When on location a small number show significant open landscape but most use a closed landscape such as a line of trees, or a wall to create a backdrop.

If location based, does the head sit above or below the horizon? Of the 30 location photos only 5 have a horizon; of these 3 have the subject’s head below the horizon and 2 above. No clear answer.

Has the background been deliberately blurred? Sander uses a shallow depth of field on nearly every occasion. If there is a contextual background we are given a sense of it rather than a sharp view. Outside of the studio he wants the background to be recognised but not understood in detail as his portraits are always about the subject even where the subject is shown in context. The Redundant Seaman, the Worker’s Council  and the Customs Officials are the three exceptions where the background is packed with information. Roswell Angier (5), who has no doubt studied a far larger selection of his work states that “The backgrounds for these portraits …. had a minimum of individuating detail and are invariably out of focus.”

Does the background offer any meaning or context? If we disregard the 22 studio portraits and consider the remainder, and as analysed in more detail below, only 7 interior photos and 10 location photos have contextual background; only 17 out of 38.

Looking through his wider body of work on line it would be easy enough to select 60 other images that prove or disprove any of these points, there is huge variety in his work. I believe that if he had a contextual background available he used it, if he had interesting backgrounds he used them, if neither was available or he was in his studio he just captured the portrait. It appears that he has created makeshift studio backdrop in some cases, such in Bohemia, so, at times, he even hid the available background from view.

It is also interesting to note, as discussed towards the end of this essay that in at least three cases the published photographs in Face of our Time have had the contextual background cropped out.

Susan Sontag (4) observes that Sander typically photographs his upper class and professional subjects indoors and without props as if their identity speaks for itself but uses props and contextual backgrounds when photographing the poor or manual classes.

Overall I believe that Sander is mostly interested in faces, props and clothes which given his interest in physiognomy are probably the three factors that he considers to be diagnostic of profession and class.  Based on the evidence published in Face of our Time, which is the only book that he curated, contextual backgrounds were not especially important to him. Perhaps this changed towards the end of his portrait career or would we gain a different perspective if we review his un-cropped photographs?

The Great Project: Max Kozloff makes the interesting point that although much of Sander’s work was for fee paying clients he was, in effect, collecting portraits for himself (2). He began to formulate ideas for his great project in the early 1920s so the Face of Our Time series is a mixture of three types of portraits: The earliest photographs that were purely made for his clients, the later photographers that fit within the terms of the People of the 20th Century project and an ambiguous  group in between where he has probably approached his client work with the great project in mind. I believe that this rough and ready categorisation explains some of the differences between how he treats the backgrounds.

The Art Scholar - August Sander

The Art Scholar – August Sander

Indoor or Studio : There is a nearly even spilt between indoor and outdoor shots. Most of the 34 indoor shots are either in a studio or in a studio like setting and the backgrounds are plain  white or grey. A small number of the interior photographs have a makeshift studio backdrop feel to them as if, on finding his subject, he searched for a neutral background.

There are only seven indoor shots that include contextual background :

  • Interior Decorator 1929 – He holds an upholstery hammer and sits on an upholstered chair with, what might be, a workbench with material samples in the background. We can assume that he working on this chair.
  • Pastry Chef – Very clearly in  large kitchen which feels commercial rather than domestic.
  • The Art Scholar – He sits in a wood panelled room which has the atmosphere of an old university library or hall.
  • The Doctor / Professor – He stands in a white room with two large demi-johns in racks. It would appear to be a laboratory.
  • The Industrialist – He sits in front of what appears to be floor to celling windows but they are obscured by what might be thin fabric. If this is contextual I can’t read it.
  • The Tycoon – This is the only profile portrait in the whole series. There is strong context on display, highly decorated painted and panelled walls and door which are obviously on a grand scale and a very ornate chair. Combined with the profile and elegant suit there is a strong message of wealth in this photograph.
  • The Pianist – He stands in a large room with a hint of moulding that suggests opulence. Perhaps the foyer of a theatre.
Country Bride and Groom - August Sander 1914

Country Bride and Groom – August Sander 1914

Outdoors : Once he moves outdoors he inevitably includes far more context. Of the 23 outdoor shots there is clear context in 19 but it should be said that most give an atmosphere to the photograph rather than any diagnostic information. For example a number of the Westerwald portraits have woodland backgrounds, this presumably helps to define the region but tells us little about the subjects. The exceptions are:

  • Young Farmers: a much discussed photograph, John Berger (3) is adament that they are going to a dance, a reasonable assumption given their smart suits and clean shoes, but in terms of background Sander includes a wide open space, probably farm land with a narrow path under the farmer’s feet.
  • Country Bride and Groom: the question here is whether Sander sought out a neutral background or, as suggested by the course notes, as he never left his backgrounds to chance, do we assume that there is important information here? The background is the side of a substantial painted wooden building. It might be a barn but the light paint suggests it is a church.
  • Prizewinners: although this is set in a very open space the background plays two roles, firstly Sander uses the gently sloping hill side graduate his subjects, each of the five prizewinners is exactly positioned so the top of their head touches, or nearly touches the horizon; but secondly it positions them on a dirt track in an open landscape telling us that they are they are between towns and returning from their prize winning event.
  • The Landowner: take note that Sander was a man of his time, it is not titled the “Landowner and his Wife” or the “Landowners”, she is completely excluded from the title, the subject is the man. The background, whilst only taking up a small percentage of the frame can seen to be a groomed landscape, a garden, not the open farmland of the farmers or the woodland of the Westerwald families. To confirm the point that the wealthy own gardens the wife holds a rose bud that she has picked from one of their rose bushes.
  • Middle Class Family: another garden with a similar meaning to The Landowner but here we can also see a window with its carefully tied back curtains. a house designed to impress those outside it.
  • The Teacher: This is one of the very few portraits that are off centre so we know that Sander wants us to look to the teacher’s right where we can see haystacks or large sheaves of corn. We now know that he is a rural teacher. The horizon is at neck height so his face is framed by the light tones of the sky.
  • Workers Council: There are a very small number of urban landscapes within this series but when he includes one it is highly diagnostic. The six men of the council stand in front of a large brick industrial building that we can assume is the factory in which they are council members.
  • Revolutionaries: If we can look past the furtive body language of the three revolutionaries with their round intellectual’s glasses and ill fitting clothes we see two abutted doors and four steps. It has a back entrance feel, perhaps a secluded corner which would fit the need to hide from the gaze of the authorities.
  • Customs Officials: One of the officials is framed by the arch in the background. It is possible to interpret the arch as a entry or exit point which would have some relevance to their profession.
  • Redundant Seaman: The photograph with the most contextual background. He stands in a port on what might be a raised walkway above the docks. The ironwork of a substantial bridge is in the background. However, the most striking feature of this photograph is the angle of the seaman who leans to starboard with a look of fierce concentration on his face as if he has had a drink or two too many and the effort of standing straight is taking all his effort.
The Redundant Seaman - August Sander

The Redundant Seaman – August Sander

Hands: Hands are a problem in portraits and Sander often deals with this by making the hands busy or in group photographs by hiding as many as possible. In just over half of this series his subjects’ hands are busy, holding a tool, or a flower or holding the hand of their partner even when as in the case of the Landowner and his wife they look so uncomfortable holding hands that we might assume they haven’t done this in many years. When his subjects hands are not busy they are usually clasped.

Pastry Cook from the series Face of Our Time - August Sander Ca. 1928

Pastry Cook – August Sander

Props: Sander likes props, 26 of this series have obvious props included. Not all are contextual and some like the flowers and books are related to keeping the subjects hands busy.

Boxers - August Sander

Boxers – August Sander

Work Clothes: There are 33 photographs where the subject or subjects wear obvious work clothes, this includes the suits of the professional classes but not, for example farmers in suits. Berger (3) makes the point that the farmers in suits tell us just as much about them as if they were in their working clothes. He argues that this is the first working class generation to own suits and they are, in their view , a statement of their new found fashion sense but, as Berger points out many look uncomfortable and out of place in their ill fitting finery. It is great shame that there is not a young man in the Three Generations of a Farming Family but if we combine this image and the Three Young Farmers we can see Berger’s point. The oldest man is his in a smock, albeit his Sunday best, his son is in a very formal three-piece with a winged collar and the three young famers are elegantly attired in very sleek suits and one even has a button down collar and modern looking tie.

Composition: If we take the single subjects, pairs and groups as a whole 53 out of 60 subjects are horizontally centred. The Teacher is placed to the left of the frame to show the background, and The Bohemians and two other shots have the paired subjects placed slightly apart. Only one, The Catholic Clergyman, is on an angle and the Protestant Minister is surrounded by a circle of students.

Camera Position: In approximately half the photographs the camera is level with the subject and in the other half it is slightly below the subject.

Body Length: There are 7 half bodies or head and shoulder shots, 32 are three quarter length and 20 are full length.

Eye Direction: 44 out of 60 images have the subjects looking straight at the camera. in 5 photographs where there is more than one subject he has one look at the camera and one look past the camera.

Member of a Student Duelling Society - August Sander

Member of a Student Duelling Society – August Sander

Crop: I am intrigued that at least three of the photographs included in this series have been cropped to exclude the background or the props. These are the Boxers, the Unemployed and the Member of a Student Duelling Society. I suspect that Sander cropped the student to make his honourable duelling scars more obvious but I have no explanation as to why he cropped the unemployed man or the boxers who I now realise are photographed inside a gym whereas in his published version they appear to be standing in front of an exterior wall. Maybe contextual background is not always important to him.

Unemployed 1928 - August Sander

Unemployed 1928 – August Sander




(1) Sander, August (1929) Face of our Time (1994/2003 edition) München: Schirmer Art Books

(2) Kozloff, Max (2007) The Theatre of the Face. London & NewYork: Phaidon

(3) Berger, John (2013) Understanding a Photograph (Kindle Edition 2013. Originally published in 1967) London: Penguin Classics

(4) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(5) Angier, Roswell ( 2007) Train Your Gaze. London: Bloomsbury

This entry was posted in 2 - Typologies, Exercises, Research & Reflection and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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