Social Propriety and Human Reality by Donald Kuspit
"August Sander: People of the 20th Century, A Photographic Portrait of Germany," May 25-Sept. 19, 2004, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028
Whatever August Sanders massive Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1924-29* project tells us about Germany between the two World Wars, and however exaggerated its claims to anthropological and encyclopedic completeness -- the only people pictured are after all German, suggesting the narcissistic provinciality (not to say inherent insularity) of Sanders undertaking -- it nonetheless demonstrates the revelatory power of documentary photography even when it stages what it documents.
Sander poses his figures, and classifies them in what the novelist Alfred Dblin called a pictorial sociology -- he divided society into Farmers, Workers, Women, Occupations, Artists, the Big City and the Last People (the blind and the dying, morbid pariahs all) as another way of staging his figures -- but the expressive result has little to do with this odd, pseudo-scientific analysis.
Why are Women and Artists privileged with places of their own? Why are Farmers and Workers not subsumed under Occupations? Sanders categories suggest the variety of social identities, but the determination of the variety has less to do with social class than with a peculiarly personal sense of cultural significance. Indeed, as he himself implied, the movement from Farmers, whom he idealized, to the Big City -- full of beggars, waifs and the unemployed, with a sprinkling of persecuted bourgeois Jews -- was a devolution to decadence, climaxing in the indifference with which the Last People (human waste) were treated.
Sanders people form what the Germans call Schicksalgemein-schaften (communities of those bound by a common fate) not social classes, and, as one moves from one to the other, they seem less and less cohesive, leaving us in the end with isolated individuals who epitomize human catastrophe -- a long way from the comfortable solidity of Sanders Farmers. Sanders portraits, whether of groups or individuals -- and every individual he pictures is stamped with the mark of a group, suggesting his or her conformity, and every group he pictures is composed of individuals whose idiosyncratic features suggest their unwitting nonconformity -- seem to confirm the sociologist Karl Mannheims view of modern society as an anonymous mass of random atoms, in which both individuality and community have little meaning.
Sanders evocative use of black and white -- sometimes abruptly juxtaposed, sometimes tentatively reconciled in pensive melancholy -- is more telling of his inner purpose -- I doubt that he himself was conscious of it -- than his social typology. The uncanny tension between the black and white clues us into the core revelation of Sanders photographs: the unresolvable tension between social identity and individual existence. It is this tension that makes them critical -- that indicates that he had a critical consciousness despite his descriptive positivism.
I am suggesting that Sanders photographs are less important for their seemingly straightforward reporting of human appearances -- he set the standard for what has now become the clich of honesty (the directness that supposedly strips ideology and illusion from fact, boldly revelling in its givenness) -- than for their subtle disclosure of the existential tension that is the dialectical fundament of lifeworld experience. It is because Sander sees with what the psychoanalyst Theodor Reik called a third eye -- because his camera lens functions, however unwittingly, as the eye of the unconscious rather than simply as an extension of everyday consciousness -- that his photographs are subtly provocative compared to ordinary documentary photography.
The people in Sanders photographs have more presence -- more being, as it were -- than they would have if we met them in everyday life, for they are informed by Sanders unconscious awareness of the inner truth of their existence. Indeed, his photographs suggest that the existential truth is always visible, if one looks with the right kind of eye. Sander, then, is not simply a social observer, but a kind of existential diagnostician.
For him each person is a dialectical puzzle -- a kind of Gordian knot of contradiction. His photographs struggle to untie it, but they only succeed in displaying it, suggesting that it can never be undone. It is the stark, even devastating verisimilitude -- amounting to a form of insight -- with which Sander makes the inevitability of human self-contradiction self-evident that gives his photographs their esthetic presence. (It is worth noting that Diane Arbus was probably influenced by the Last People -- freaks left over from life, as it were -- suggesting her role in the cliching of reality as honestly -- and one might say routinely and blatantly -- pathological.)
The faces of Sanders figures belong to one realm of being, their clothing to another: they are two people in one, whether they know it or not. Face and clothing are parts of the same figure, but they remain opposed, even as they seem to qualify each other and interact. Again and again Sander shows us the tension between a flagrantly human face, full of character (sometimes despite its social pretense), and social propriety, signified by clothing -- in effect a functional uniform, sometimes explicitly so, reducing the individual to social anonymity and personal shallowness.
The discrepancy between personal face, with its often unharmonious features, and impersonal clothing, conventionalizing people as though they came out of the same social mold -- however unconventional the clothing, and whatever flair it may be worn with, it enforces social standards, whatever the social group involved -- gives Sanders photographs their tragic cast. It is an innocent tragedy: the tragedy of being one thing to the world (indeed, a thing in the world, which is what ones social uniform turns one into, even if one is an artist), and another thing (a person -- a non-thing, which is what ones face indicates one is) to oneself. The clothing is readymade, the face is not readymade, which is the tragedy of life, or at least its irony.
Thus Sanders objectivity, like that of the Neue Sachlichkeit with which he has been associated, is always compromised -- even undermined -- by a lurking sense of the private subject behind the public facade. In even the most passive pose, the face of Sanders subject seems to resist objectification by the camera -- in contrast to the clothing, which is already objectified and objectifies the subject. Sander suggests that the camera is as much an instrument of social rationalization and control as clothing, even as it also invasively exposes what we try to keep hidden -- certainly from strangers -- although that is visible, at least partially, in our faces.
Photography may disclose -- even exaggerate -- difference, but it also fits even the most bizarre sights into the social order. It makes the extraordinarily individual into the ordinarily social -- unfamiliar people into transient moments in a familiar social scene -- even as it gives the different and unfamiliar their due. This seems true of even the simplest, seemingly most straightforward snapshot, let alone of Sanders emotionally insinuating portraits, each a tense little psychodrama whatever the poise and self-possession of the portrayed figure.
Sanders figures, then, always maintain their social propriety and reveal their social place through their clothing, but their humanness is evident in their improper, unsettling faces. Their faces just dont fit in to the otherwise standard scene -- or rather they are forced to fit in, like those in the procrustean facades in which people theatrically pose for the camera as though they were on a holiday from their lives. To put this in Winnicottian terms, their true, unconventional selves -- and all human beings are inwardly unconventional -- appear in their faces however false to themselves their formal clothing shows them to be, even when it is made to order for them. Face and clothing are rendered with equal precision, but the absolute difference between them is rendered with even more precision.
In Sanders pictures of peasants, worn white faces stare out of sober black clothes, suggesting the strange feelings -- the strange human beings -- behind the social facade of the formal clothing (and pose). The numerous photographs of sturdy farmers wives (and sometimes widows) are particularly telling physiognomies: they may endure their hard lot, but they are emotionally isolated, if not resigned. With similar emotional verisimilitude, the photographs of dandyish young farmers suggest a jaunty, rebellious personality waiting to break out of the constraining cage of fine clothing.
The young farmers may be more exciting than the old wives -- there is a good deal of jumping between the young and old in Sanders photographs, as though to suggest the stages of life (innocent before and knowing after; even Sanders young Nazis have a happy innocence about them) -- but there is the same emotional vividness in both kinds of portrait, giving the figures a more serious, tangible presence than their clothing does. Indeed, it quickly fades into commonplaceness next to the relentlessly uncommon, haunting faces, whether seasoned or unseasoned by experience.
Sanders faces are always fresh, nonconformist, and expressive, whatever the mood conveyed -- striking and deeply moving, whatever the social position of the person involved -- however banal and conformist his clothing. People, Sanders photographs suggest, are themselves, whatever society thinks and tells them they are.
Everywhere one looks the irreconcilability of face and clothing becomes evident, especially when the clothing is absolutely black and the faces defiantly white, as in several photographs of Farming Families, ca. 1913. The Farm Children photographed in the Westerwald, ca. 1913, seem rather constrained by their clothing -- no doubt they cant wait to get them dirty -- and the Farm Children in a 1927 photograph -- two little girls -- seem barely able to hold their pose, as their impishness suggests.
The worn face and medals of the soberly dressed seated man in Farming Family, ca. 1914, belong to worlds apart. Westerwald Farmer, ca. 1932, is a particularly dramatic example of Sanders use of black and white to underscore the emotional dimension of his figure. Again and again Sander tends to stark contrasts, as in the famous Pastry Cook of Cologne-Lindenthal, ca. 1928.
The white uniform and black pants add emotional power to the powerfully built figure staring unflinchingly into the cameras eye. No doubt theres irony in showing a Butchers Assistant from the Nordwald/Westerwald region, ca. 1905-06, all dressed up and ready to go, but his black derby and suit and white collar and vest suggest that he is unconsciously conflicted about his lot in life. The elegantly garbed Secretary at a Radio Station in Cologne, 1931, may be a liberated modern woman, as her short haircut and cigarette suggest, but the sharp contrast of black and white suggests that she is neurotically conflicted.
Over and over Sander uses black and white -- sometimes blended into the ambivalence of gray, sometimes with almost melodramatic starkness -- to bring his figures to emotional life. Indeed, it problematizes them, suggesting that existence is a problem for them. They are never one with themselves: they are not who they socially seem to be, nor for that matter who they individually seem to be. It is never clear whether they are radically individual or playing a social role -- authentically who they are or poseurs, or both at once. They themselves may not know it, although many of them seem to, as the self-consciousness with which they pose suggests.
Nonetheless, whether artists, writers, art historians, performers, businessmen, doctors, military men, lawyers, politicians or members of the working class or the middle class or the social and economic elite, the point Sander seems to be making -- it is what gives his photographs their staying power -- is that, in the words of Harry Stack Sullivan, that we are all more simply human than otherwise. This is not as banal as it seems, for our social differences -- the boundaries between classes and people seem rather rigid and formal in Sanders Germany -- obscure it. What makes Sanders photographs fascinating is that they convey this underlying humanity, even intimating its complexity, while simultaneously conveying the singularity and sociality of human beings.
Without their imaginative interplay of black and white, and the many gradations between, giving them an esthetic infrastructure and emotional resonance, Sanders photographs would be historical documents of a bygone world rather than memorable testimony to the ingrained contradictoriness -- dare one say tragic absurdity? -- of social life and individual identity. Sander may be a realist -- or at least an anti-idealist -- but he suggests that there is more to reality than there is to see, even as he seems to show us all that there appears to be.
* Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts, 1924-29 is officially translated as Citizens of the 20th Century, but more accurately -- and less pretentiously -- can be rendered as People of the 20th Century. The German word for citizen is brger.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.