Identity & trauma I: Germany and Sander's portraitsI have long been fascinated by his work, and so was eager to see the Metropolitan Museum's show, August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, a photographic portrait of Germany. Most of us are familiar with at least a few of these marvelous portraits. The one used for the exhibition poster, taken in 1914 in the countryside near the Dutch-German border, inspired Richard Powers' 1985 novel Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance. (Click for a summary). Sander's "Pastry Cook" is another one that is widely reproduced. For the first time, the Met exhibit makes it possible for the general public (like me) to see these and hundreds of other portraits (out of the many thousands of plates that Sander made) in the context of his grand project, to portray all the social types of Germany in the new century. Sander (1876-1964) grew up in a Germany that where extreme social conservativism of the rural gentry (insisting on preserving their power as food producers and the perpetuation of traditional social statuses) confronted the growing power of urban industrialists (seeking social mobility, including the right to hire and fire at will, and lower food prices so they could pay lower wages) and the rapidly growing labor movement that challenged both elites. Sander's "20th century" project begins in 1914, the eve of the Great European War, which temporarily suppressed these tensions under aggressive nationalism. He kept photographing through the Weimar years, the Nazi's 12-year "Thousand Year Reich" (1933-45), and on until his death in the western part of divided Germany. Sander's own sympathies were clearly with the workers and the poor, though he also meticulously portrayed aristocrats and dandies as well. Sander's son Erich, himself a very good photographer and a Communist (or at least close to the party), died in a Nazi prison, but before he did, he got himself appointed prison photographer and managed to smuggle out shots of his fellow prisoners for his parents to deliver to their relatives. He also smuggled out a photo of himself, working at his prison desk. The last photo in the exhibit is by his father August: Erich's death mask.
What is wonderful about Sander's portrait collections dedicated to workers, industrialists, women (there are women included in the other sections as well), officials, et al. is that the subjects are all aware that they are being photographed and pose as they wish to be memorialized. Thus the Nazi officer, the revolutionary, the beggar, the bailiff, the bohemian actress, the Ukrainian forced laborers, the Jews preparing for exile or worse, come across with all the dignity (or arrogance, or flippancy) they can summon.
For my earlier reflections on the great 20th century drama of Germany, see Pagan Pilgrimage: Berlin, Oktober 2000.