Thanks to a brave and most commendable effort by one of my local photo museums, the oddly named FOAM (light and frothy?), I was at last able to confront a good selection of vintage prints by August Sander at close range. These are part of that famous large project of his called “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts”: People Of The Twentieth Century. I have known many of these images for years, as they have been published often, and had developed a personal perception of what they meant and what they were. My opinion was based not so much on documents or a declaration of intent by the author, but on my own reaction to the images and a few bits of information. It is known that the Nazis didn’t like them, and this somehow gives one the impression that August Sander himself might have been trying to prove some point about humanity, and that this point must have been against Hitler’s ideology.
Then, on visiting the show and reading one quite factual an uninspired letter by August Sander himself, plus more comments on his work, I was confronted with another interpretation. Most of all the concept of Archetype is frequently mentioned, as being at the root of Sander’s effort. In other words: August Sander was “collecting” his fellow Germans, in order to establish a typology based on their role and place in society and not on their individual personality or identity. Furthermore, maybe due to archival limitations, maybe intentional, only the name of those belonging to the higher classes is mentioned in the captions to the images, while the peasants and other workers are only identified by their profession. All my life I had thought that this was meant to be subtly ironic, corrosive of Nazi idealism, and the very opposite of what a study like this might imply: that people are not unique but a mere number in a larger scheme of things that we call society. And that in this society some are on top of others, this due to their intrinsic qualities and not a mere accident of birth, luck or other factor. Now I am left to wonder at the intent of August Sander, and I am starting to suspect that he himself might have been more a man of the twentieth century himself than his photographs might have implied to us in the 21st. Is it possible that the power of persuasion of his fine work resides in the capacity of his photographs to provide later generations with documents open for interpretation, despite the underlying personality of the photographer and his original intentions? I think it is.
Archetypes are either original ideas of which everything else has derived as a copy, according to Plato, or the more modern concept of an unborn subconscious idea deposited in our minds in evolutionary fashion, as part of Jung’s psychology.
If you want to prove that people adhere to some pre-existent concept or notion, than the right methodology would be to confront the viewer with a great number of people that do the same thing. Give me one hundred bakers, a thousand soldiers, fifty architects, and I will be prompted to look for and eventually recognize those common traits that connect them to the archetype. Or would his series have been meant as a collection of types that other Germans from his time would have recognized as archetypes? Then I am afraid but the effort would be lost on everyone who hasn’t been there and then to share this common notion. Or did he mean to tell us something about his people by saying: “Look, this is what we expect a baker, soldier, architect, bricklayer or whatever to be like”, thereby trying to convey a deeper understanding of the way the Germans in the thirty’s thought about themselves more than what they in general looked like? I have to admit I am quite lost here.
Some of these photographs, many in fact, are great. They are revealing, as good photographs always are. They show us individuals, original people, posing for the photographer in mostly dignified and self conscious way. In the best examples the pose is not the traditional portrait studio photography kind, but more spontaneous. Those are mostly taken outside, and have clean unobtrusive backgrounds. The higher classes tend to be more conventional, they sit indoors and are either directed to take or have of their own accord adopted some truly archetypal (and in this context the word seems adequate) attitude. They also display some outer show of personality in their haircut, or glasses, or handle a pipe for example, the better to define themselves from the grey masses. Funny that these unoriginal people should be granted a name and surname in the caption – now that their position in society, as the name itself, is completely meaningless to us – and that the powerful young brick layer, for example, is left without name. The irony is that the latter wins: he is still alive and modern, and speaks to us vividly, while the others are dead and buried. But was this the way Sander planned it to be? I don’t know.
What these, I insist, INDIVIDUALS have in common is not belonging to some profession or station in life but a somewhat fixed energetic earnest gaze. They give one the impression of belonging to a stern strict society, a world of hard toil, of authorities and unquestioning subjects, of rules. It may be suggestion, knowing what these people eventually ended up being a part of in hindsight, or maybe the warning was there at the time and was felt by some and by Sander himself. I can’t tell.
It is not difficult to see why the Nazis didn’t like them: hardly the master race these subjects are, really. They are real people, like us. And this we should bear in mind, if we are to avoid the risk of remaining men of the twentieth century ourselves, or worse still, slightly nazist. (Do we find it natural that some should be named and others not? Logical that the photographs of the mentally ill or handy-capped should be shown in a small room at the back? Their prints smaller than the others? Is this all just accidental?).
No person is an archetype, regardless of how hard we try or are lead to conform. We are all individuals, each important to the whole in his/her own right. The more one tries to fit humanity into a mould, the more pieces and bits just keep sticking out of it. That’s the beauty of it, and it shows in Sander’s work. Whether he meant it or not.
One last remark: I have noticed some of the visitors who couldn’t refrain from laughing at the people in the photographs, they made fun of them. Maybe it was the types, maybe the expressions. Beware! We are quite funny ourselves, you know?