Call it an archiving of the human inventory of the ghetto. An accounting before sealing the doors shut and flipping the switch. August Sander. It was the new scientific method of photography. The subject as an anatomical study of the anthropology of the German as if it was a variant species that barked up the wrong tree and fell into an open pit for 3,000 years. Not exactly photography that is spiritually sublime, or carries the verve and charge, the spontaneity and the touch of moxie and elan of a Helen Levitt or Henri Cartier-Bresson. Ths was a prelude to the sharpening of the physiognomial that would be refined to a find point necessity in the Third Reich. An interrogation of the cold optics of the lens where to Walter Benjamin it would pose and help ask the question, “where one comes from.” German geography and lots of white, very white blood cells.
To Benjamin, this type of photography became imbued, invested, with the pathos of a melancholia.This photographic Darwinism of the twelve tribes of the new Judah, this messianic nation where terror would meet terror as the propaganda blew, well, Benjamin did not elaborate, but he was onto the alchemical principle,like Durer’s Melencholia, this idea of purity, of sacrificing the base elements to create, to forge a metal, a people of iron.
Germany. The never-never land where Poe goes Faustian and the morbid imagination runs wild. A love of death. A passion for death mistaken for a yearned for life. But life is simply an annoying nuisance as Fassbinder showed. His Maria Braun’s and Veronika Voss were pulled along by a romance with death, a seduction with death. Stendhal said that in Germany, impassioned hearts were strangely, peculiarly divorced from logical minds. So much for logic. Sander’s gray photographs are they light at the end of the depressive, dreary, broodingly maudlin tunnel of German history or is that light a mere deceptive illumination, a fake revelation. Its not really a tunnel. With a trick of logic its actually a corpse strewn dungeon and that grey is the fuzzy glow of decaying and rotting corpses.
In a reading of Sander’s portraits, the conventional understanding is that of a grand narrative, a fable of consciousness-raising, where the mass society would connect to the means of its politicization in the reading of images or faces. But, this is overlain with something unexpected: an awakening as a function of the looming, dark historical cloud which fascism uses to obscures the sun. So, any clarity of reading the image becomes enmeshed in another narrative of complicity, the mutilation of the subject, degraded, under the increasing hegemony of the right-wing movements.
So, politics, as Benjamin asserted will always follow a narrative of aesthetization. Any narrative that turns itself towards enlightenment, is matched by fascism’s ingenious, uncanny ability to turn prols- spruce them up into middle class status- into sleep walkers. Actually, for Sander, the numbing greyness represents the art of disillusion, for the illusions it foists on the viewer, the space between the first catastrophe of WWI, the futile attempt at regeneration before succumbing, falling on the sword of spiritual nihilism. A mystical return to origins is dead. Its the failure of the West as a humanizing project or mission. There is no dream of resurrection. They are anti-portraits like Eisenstein, but are also complementary to a Leni Riefenstahl, the antidote that would make the ideal possible. Sander’s figures, most of them, are in a position of purgatory, a nowhere zone. A space that shows the existential impossibility of them undergoing a transformation. No chance to attain saving grace. They’re fucked.
…Practically everyone in Sander is what Wager Benjamin called an etui-man–one who protects himself inside a box, of case: “The inside of the case is the velvet-lined track that he has imprinted on the world.” Like Sander’s Farm Children , in their close-fitting doorways, a person was placed in a box of his own on the day he was born. “The officer’s wife did not associate with the wife of the teacher, nor the latter with the merchant’s nor she … with the wife of the workman.” We must not think, however, that the arrangement of classes resembled their caricature in Marx; there were not two but a hundred gradations: “the skilled worker was superior to the unskilled one, [and] often … to the master craftsman…. Then there were the foremen and supervisors, managers and agents…. This was not one mass of people dominated by a few oppressors…. There were countless occupations and new titles.” …
…The inflation and the Wall Street crash, as Canetti wrote, exploded in this intricate structure like bombs, and Weimar literature is full of the eager young clerk who, even us he labors earnestly to climb the stairway of class, slides down its well-greased treads to the gutter; of the lady forced to accept lodgers who can no longer pay but will not leave; of the innkeeper begging passersby in the road to stay. Yet if the daily pain of the Germans broke into violence in the streets and, over time, congealed into the hate on which Nazism fed, in daily life it was submerged beneath the stoical bearing of Prussia. How long has it been since the services of Sander’s notary were required with any frequency? His face will never betray him, and if he fears his coat will–it has begun to lose its shape from age–that is why he must fill it out like a tree trunk. As soon us we put Weimar’s air back into Sander’s portraits, we have to ask whether a central part of the stilted elegance of any person there is not his anxiety that the world will not cohere, that he may fail to hold his place, whether his stoicism is not the index of his shame. Read More:http://www.americansuburbx.com/2009/02/theory-august-sander-mask-behind-face.html
Stephen Bull: Perhaps there is something suspicious too about those folks depicted in the principal mass of Sander’s project. Many of them could almost be character actors trying out roles for their portfolio. The ‘Trade-Unionist’, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, poses dramatically in front of a white backdrop. Others display basic props; a ‘Postman for registered mail’ pretends to fill in a form: an ‘Unemployed man’ waits, cap in hand, a ‘Barrister’ holds up his papers. Rarely do we see these people actually acting out their roles. There is a peculiarly static concordance to the nation we are shown. Everyone has their part to play, from beggars to bankers. Even a group of revolutionaries are absorbed into the harmonic structure that Sander imposes. It is as if this is the way the world always was and how it will always be; a society as rigid as the poses of the men and women who make it up.
…But of course Weimar Germany was a far from stable society. In fact it was in a process of radical transition, The First World War had left more than half a million soldiers disabled, over a million children orphaned and many millions homeless and out of work. At the same time, the old world, the people ‘close to nature’ that Sander photographed in the Westerwald, those at the root of his society, were disappearing and being replaced by industrialists and intellectuals. Sander’s stubborn illusion of frozen stability may have come from his own stated need to ‘hold fast the history of the world’. He wanted to stop time, construct his own world and preserve it through his photographs; three wishes that have fuelled much documentary work….
…The desire to classify (and ossify) the society of the time in a harmonious manner could seem blinkered and illogical, yet it may be partly understood in terms of Freud’s idea of the uncanny. The word translates into the German unheimlich, itself derived from heimlich, or homely. One of the aspects of the uncanny, Freud contends, is anxiety produced by the unknown, the changing, the new. August Sander’s impossible mission could stem from a desire to apply the familiar genre of portraiture to the new and evolving medium of photography. This, in turn, is used to create a comfortable, homely society, instead of an unheimlich nation in a state of flux.Read More:http://www.source.ie/issues/issues0120/issue12/is12revaugsan.html
His work met with great acclaim even during his lifetime, as testified by the many reviews that were composed in response to Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time) for instance, by people such as Kurt Tucholsky, Lou Straus-Ernst – Max Ernst’s first wife – or Walter Benjamin. The latter in particular pointed out the educational significance of the portrait collection against the backdrop of the threat of a National Socialist rule, evoking a feeling of premonition in retrospect. In 1936, the printing blocks of Sander’s Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time) were destroyed by the National Socialists and any further distribution of the book was prohibited.Read More:http://www.photography-collection.com/exhibitions/august-sander-icons-from-the-portrait-collection-menschen-des-20-jahrhunderts/