Face of Our Time
A few months ago, the TLS did a dandy retrospective on the early 20th Century photographer August Sander. The theme was, in brief, that Sandler wasn't taking photographs of people as much as taking pictures of what people thought they should be. Not only their jobs, their faces, the way they stood, the way they looked at the camera, but --- through the photographer's magic --- what they believed about themselves.
Sander's trick was to let people arrange themselves before the camera, show the rest of us how they wanted to be seen. Along with a brilliant review, the TLS included the picture of famous "Young Farmers" from 1914 --- three German workers dressed up fit to kill for Saturday night at the local bierstube, ogling the mädchen while downing the lager.
The writer --- Iain Bamforth --- catches the photographer's many tricks nicely. People want to be seen, and they want to be seen at what they think is their best. You and I would never dress up like those three dandies --- especially now, when walking-canes are designated for the not-so-abled and fedoras are from the forgotten ages --- but we can easily fall in love with their heart-breaking arrogance: this was 1914, early summer; in six months or a year, they would be in uniform, maybe one of the walking wounded --- with a cane --- maybe struck down in a ditch near Ypres; maybe already laid in a grave, one of the 16,000,000 that were not to come out of that war alive, no less the 20,000,000 that were wounded physically and mentally. The century is sweeping past them. They, their country and their world were to be engulfed in two wars which were to cruelly erase forever this gentle, breezy, merry time of their lives.
Bamford's words match the photographer's uncanny ability to lock in a face, a stance, an expectation, a frozen moment of candor. He had taught himself, became a professional when the camera was still a novelty. In those days, it was such a rarity that few people knew how they appeared just before they were about find themselves stolen away by a machine from the future.
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By1914 the continent had been at peace for forty-five years. After 1914, it would be in war (hot and cold) for the next seventy-five, sometimes in the trenches, often in the streets. We can't help but be touched by the elegant naiveté of these folk, people bound by their age, their clothes (their excessively up-to-the-neck clothing) hiding all but hands and face. The women were bundled up against sin or temptation. The children excessively so, restraining all play.
The men were bound equally in class, body (and soul), but their faces reflect an innocent arrogance at this diamond-point of their lives, one of peace and surety that came just before the calamity. They thought their place, indeed, their place in society, was secure.Bamforth writes,
These are people with qualities --- personal attributes or habits that appear to be their own but which have actually been shaped by class consciousness or assimilated in the lifelong practice of a trade or profession or ritual.
Sander asserted that he was merely "assisting a self-portrait,"
Sitters were allowed to present themselves, the better to give an account of who they thought they were: their postures and expressions are sometimes weird marvels of feeling. They have been allowed to "speak" in a way appropriate although what is speaking has no voice at all. Those personal attributes which singles us out as individuals (and not just in terms of appearance) are something over which we have less than complete ownership: voice and smell can betray us in ways that catch us unawares. What the sitter expresses in a photo is more mysterious still in what it reveals about the unspoken set of cultural assumptions learned by the members of every consociate generations --- all that is historically constructed, socially perpetuated and individivually expressed.
One thing the Bamford neglects to touch on is the potency of a black-and-white photograph --- something, I suspect, far more powerful than a color shot. The power is pure MacLuhan: a black-and-white photograph forces us to do much of the work of piecing it together, arranging the character of those we are looking at. There are but five colors in a b&w picture to work with. (One obtuse writer claims that there are fifty shades of gray, but this shows a blindness to the mystery of photographs that demand so much of the photographer, the sitter and the viewer.)Five colors. Black. White. Gray. Light Gray. Dark Gray. Five colors. Look at the soldier above. What color are his eyes? Can we guess, blue or green? His skin: probably very white. Uniform? Green-gray. Buttons? Gold. Helmet? Gun-metal gray. His power comes from the image formed by our minds, what we now know of that special military arrogance of Germany, 1940, an arrogance as telling as that of the three farmers up at the beginning.
Where do we get these colors? Not from the picture, but from memory, reflection, past experience.
I am doing with this picture --- with all of them --- what McLuhan said we did with early television. When I was young, the television sets showed a very fuzzy picture. There were but only 525 lines moving across the screen, and they were all running five shades of gray. We children had to sit close to the set to make everything come true. We were making up for the lack of the full picture by putting things together in our heads, coming up with a reasonable facsimile of what we thought was there before our very eyes.
It is the same that you and I do with black-and-white photographs. We have to make up a sizeable part of the picture for ourselves. Which may be the joy of it. There is so much missing with only these five colors that it becomes an imperative for us to work, and work hard, to complete it. And once we do, there is the satisfaction of rounding everything out, getting the full picture . . . as it were.
The sharpness of focus helps us. A single figure, perhaps two --- at times a family. But most usually single figures looking at us looking at them. Sander's people, mostly Germans from Aachen, fill up our screen, staring, almost always unsmiling. This is serious business. We are being told a story, in pictures, a serious, a deep story directly from the lives of people who lived a hundred years ago. Do we get it? We have no choice. Look at that policeman [Fig 2]. This constabulary business is serious. And the care with which he braids out his moustache tells us so much about him. How much time each day did he tease it out with moustache wax? Is he serious? Is there a hint of mischievousness in his eyes? Is he telling us that he takes his responsibilities serious (his facial hair); and you'd better take him seriously too. That's not a club in his hand, but it might as well be.
And look at Paul McCartney's grandfather! [Fig 4] No stuff. Didn't you see him in A Hard Day's Night? A real trickster. Paul warned. "You have to be careful with him; he's a real mixer." The title he carries in Face of Our Time is "Teacher active in the youth movement" (1923). Can you think of a better label to put on Wilfred Brambell from the Beatle's movie, after he's sent Ringo out on the streets of London to find himself? Will we ever forget his smirk after Ringo slams down his book and heads out? Can our youth movement "teacher" from Cologne be hiding the same ability to stir the pot.
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There is an interesting introduction to Face of Our Time by Alfred Döblin, written for an earlier (1929) edition of this book. He calls attention to the change visible in these sixty photographs. He says that "they provide superb material for the cultural, class, and economic history of the last thirty years." But for those of us looking at them from our perspective a half-a-century after Sander's death, the power comes not from the change but from the chance that he has given us to move back so many years into time where we could look dead into the eyes of farmers and students and landowners and odd-job workers from so long ago.
Inside this culture of severe demarcations of class, we find that the devil, again, does exist in the details --- and the detail is clothed in "the looking glass." We stare dead-on into these faces from 1914 and 1929 and 1932 and 1940, we know we are looking into the mirror the way we always should look into the mirror: unsmiling, with a pitiless, gryphon-like stare, seeking out any clue as that might cause concern. The hardness of the life of this rigid social spectrum may well leave us uneasy --- looking at ourselves, wondering if our future is going to escape their own.