Classicizing the Everyday
In the 1920s European governments were polarized between the extreme right and left, and dictators controlled several regimes. Strong nationalistic feelings and left-wing beliefs spread through the European working classes. Meanwhile, other nations were being taken over by new right-wing ideologies.
As political moderation grew less popular, both progressives and conservatives claimed classicism as their own. For the former, classicism represented the long lineage of modern ideas, many of which were rooted in ancient cultures. For the latter, it was the antithesis of progressive social ideas. Many artists who dared to express their individual artistic visions could be threatened with political repercussions.
In this climate, August Sander (1876–1964) undertook an ambitious project of photographic portraits to reveal specific classes of people and the type of work they did. “Sander’s Cologne studio was a popular gathering place for young artists who engaged in lively debates about social and aesthetic concerns of the day, in particular the politically minded, left-wing artists known as the Cologne Progressives. These discussions helped advance Sander’s idea to create a dynamic, cumulative portrayal of modern society.”
Sander began Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century) in 1922 when he was 46 years old. He started by making a list of the various occupations he wished to portray. He decided to take most of the photographs in his native Westerwald region (near Cologne) because he knew it so well. Each day he biked to a different area, where he took photographs of tradesmen, workers, and countless other people. In his image of a coal carrier, “the doorway framing the laborer sets a boundary between the bright light of day and the shadowy depths behind him. The man’s bent leg, which seems to propel him forward, lends dynamism to a composition that might otherwise have been static.”
Although Sander’s plan was to capture some 600 portraits of his countrymen, in 1929 he produced a book featuring many of the photographs he had already taken. Because he had the misfortune to be photographing as the Nazi regime came to power, he was able to capture far fewer images. The Nazis eventually banned his book, raided his studio, and destroyed many pictures because they felt that Sander’s honest images of people did not represent the master race they wished to create. To protect his work, Sander hid his negatives in the countryside. After the Nazis were defeated in World War II, the negatives that survived were reclaimed, newly printed, and widely distributed. Today they are recognized as a masterful depiction of a particular people at a specific time in history.
- Before showing the photograph, tell students that they are about to see a photograph taken in 1929 called Berlin Coal Carrier. Ask them to make a quick sketch and/or write a sentence or two about what they expect to see. Then show Sander’s photograph. Discuss the similarities and differences between the image and their expectations of a work with that title.
- This person’s eyes seem to be looking directly at you. If your students started a conversation with him, what might be the dialogue? What would he say about his livelihood, his place in society, and life in Germany in 1929?
- Curator Kenneth E. Silver included this photograph in the Classicizing the Everyday section of the exhibition. In what ways does this image express daily existence? How might it be seen as classical?
- Sander lived in Cologne, a city that was largely supportive of Hitler’s
Nazi regime. Research the climate in Germany during the 1920s and
1930s and why the government would perceive Sander’s work as a
threat and want it destroyed.
- Sander believed that society was organized into a hierarchy of
occupations and documented the professions of his time, including
the craftsman, industrialist, farmer, doctor, pharmacist, notary, judge,
attorney, soldier, aristocrat, clergyman, teacher, businessman,
politician, writer, actor, painter, architect, and musician. Imagine
continuing Sander’s project and creating a photographic inventory
titled People of the Twenty-First Century. What lucrative jobs from
the early 20th century have since disappeared? Which ones
continue? What new professions would need to be added to a
21st-century archive of jobs?
- Sander stated, “We know that people are formed by the light and
air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from
appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in
his face whether he is happy or troubled.” To what extent do your
students agree or disagree with this statement? How much do they
believe one can assume from a person’s appearance only, without
getting to know him or her?
- Because Sander knew many of his subjects, they posed willingly,
and he encouraged them to arrange themselves and consider their
pose. Their trust in his abilities and the quality of his project resulted
in the naturalness of his images. Work with a partner to create a
photographic portrait. Before taking the picture, students should
decide what to wear; what their poses, facial expressions,
background, and lighting will be; and how they might crop it.
Have them discuss how these choices convey information about
who they are.