Exercise 2: Background as context


Brief: Study Sander’s portraits in very close detail, making notes as you go. Look at how his subjects are positioned in relation to each other or their environment. Are they facing the camera or looking away? What, if any, props does Sander use? Do these props seem relevant or are they strange? What physical stance does the subject adopt? Typology is therefore an act of attribution as opposed to classification, which is simply a process of definition.


Typification is a process of creating standard (typical) social construction based on standard assumptions. Discrimination based on typification is called typism.(Wikipedia Contributors, 2020)


For this exercise I could loan the book Citizens of the twentieth century: portrait photographs, 1892-1952, it includes all the series typologies Sanders made and is divided into the following categories: Farmers, Workers, Women, Occupations, Artists, The Big City and Last People.

In the first series, Sanders Farmers (Bauern) images, many farmer women have a book (or bible?) as an attribute in their hands, signifying learning, feign literacy or devout religious values (Bate, 2020), but it could also indicate bookkeeping (Sander et al., 1986) or perhaps the combination together with frugality and devout, the black, soberly restrained clothing emphasize this even more. The book is not seen back in the series Women. This series, strangely enough, does not show a woman as such, but only women in their family role as mother or wife. In the images either accompanied by children or husband/man.

He puts most of the sitters mostly in their typical environment, when possible with stereotypical indicators of their group.  When an attribute or clothes provide sufficient indication for the typology, Sanders likes to blur the background more using a shallower depth of field.

In all images within the series ‘Farmers’, the shoulders are slightly turned while the face and eyes are directed straight into the camera. In almost all images, the hands of the sitter are included in the frame, probably as an (additional) indication of the sitter’s profession and following the compositional and posing rules of the early mugshots. As with previous pictorialist portraits, the sitters hardly ever smiles, in most cases, they show an almost forced, ‘natural’ expression, although even that results in a somewhat emotionless or mirthless representation. Some images remind me of the ethnical/anthropological photographs of Edward S. Curtis of Native Americans, although the latter used more variation in posing and gestures and even used ‘en Profil’ facial direction which is only in one or two occasions used by Sanders, in extremely the last image in the book  Citizens of the twentieth century: portrait photographs, 1892-1952, titled ‘Death’ is one of the few ‘en Profil’ photographs.

In the portfolio ‘Jewes’ all sitters have a different pose to the rest of the portraits, they are mostly in sitting position and have their face turned aside slightly, opposing the farmers, how all have their face straight. In neither series however, I could find sufficient proof of the statements made in the course unit about that background adding context to the images. Yes, attributes and clothes are used frequently, but the backgrounds in most images seem to have merely an aesthetical function, many times Sander uses a simple backdrop, especially the half body portraits in this series. The facial impression of the sitter in the image ‘Verfolgter Jude. Herr Oppenheim, ca. 1938’ is striking for this period. As sad, empty, acquiescent but bitter gaze into a dark future, knowing he has to leave his present way of life, if not life itself, very soon.

Sander, A. (1938) Verfolgter Jude. Herr Oppenheim, ca. 1938.

Clothes seem to be of importance. The farmers all are very dressed up, posing in their Sunday best probably, all very static and uncomfortably. In the series the big city, all seems more playful and less stiff. They also are from a later period. While the farmers mostly are shot between 1910 and 1915, Sanders himself seems to become looser in the series later in time, although with the photographs with the national socialists, all rigour seems to be back again. The image

As for composition, he places the sitters in the centre of the images, or when more then one person in the frame, correctly balanced and centre weighted, Sanders does not seem to us much variation, he strictly uses the ‘mugshot principle’, foremost the image should be a typical representation of a person, secondary only an artistic image.