August Sander (1876-1964) is interesting enough and with such a prolific body of work that deserves a deeper research about a lot of questions implicit in his photography. In an age where Pictorialism still maintained a certain grade of influence, Sander could be considered, as long as Renger-Patzch, and Blossfeldt, the founder of New Photography, a variation of the artistic movement known as New Objectivity.
Although the Nazis repression and Allied bombing destroyed most of his work, Sander’s legacy includes two fundamental books in the history of photography in general, and essential in the genre of portraiture: People of the 20th Century (1911) and Faces of Our Time (1929). This last book intended to be an introduction to a much ambitious work, which it could not be materialized because of the intervention of German Ministry of Culture, and through its pages, we can see a interesting variety of characters, situations and styles, that some authors foreseen in his work the Diane Arbus’ precursor.
Regarding to the use of background in Sander photography, it is fair to say that he uses the background in a meaningful element on the composition. It is strange the use of plain backgrounds, and he often takes advantage of the power of the background to set a suitable context to the scene. However, the same richness of characters that we can see among the subjects is also manifest in the background styles and techniques that he uses in his pictures.
The background in Sander photography is not casual, it is so intricate intertwined in the story of the subjects that according of what Alfred Döblin asserts in the prologue of the book “Face of Our Time”, people are shaped by [..] livelihood and environment. In some photographs, the subject is shown in a straight and frontal view, like in “Boxers” (Hein Heese and Paul Rödersteing) against and arid and sleazy background on which we can guess the gymnasium where these to young boxers practice. In this case, the background is not intrusive, perhaps because Sanders wanted to present the contrast between the two characters.
One the best known pictures of Sander is that of the three young people wearing black hats and carrying walking sticks, frozen on their way to a dance in Westerwald. Aside from other lectures, the three hats (the punctum of the pictures) are outline against the sky. I think Sander intentionally positioned the horizon line just through the throat of the characters to strength the individual facial expression of the characters. The background is blurred, offering another point of contrast between the defined black of the suit and the vast blackness of the fields behind the youths.
In the picture of the farmer sowing, Sander uses the background to transmit a feeling of belonging to the labour ground and the subject appears completely surrounded by the background if he were a consubstantial part of it; the depth of field of the picture is wide, so it is possible to appreciate certain detail in the background. To achieve this effect, Sander took the picture from an elevated point of view. In this case, Sander uses deliberately the background to point out the individuality of the subject and his relation with it.
For this exercise I’d like to include two very different pictures: The first one of the Spanish composer Brais Gonzalez in his work place, a talented pianist and a renowned composer of music for silent movies. The subject is shown sitting, with his body slightly turned to the right side, while his head looks in the opposite direction, towards the light source that flows the scene from the left side. In the background we can see his computer, where a scene of the movie “The Passion of Joan of Arc” by Carl Theodor Dreyer on which he is currently working. The intention was to provide some context to the picture, although the reference could not be so clear without a previous knowledge of the biography of the subject.
The second portrait is Andrea González, a young saxophon player, who is starting a promising career as soloist. Here I use an almost plain background, meaningless, against which the figure of the subject is outline. I looked for a dark background to minimize the influence of the background on the subject, so I wanted to remark her confidence and determination. In this case, and to contribute to such a message, she is looking straight to the camera. The idea of putting the pattern background behind the subject, with all these horizontal lines, also contributes to draw the determination and self-awareness of the subject.
The Art of Photography (2013) August Sander. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3RnfgRf2ec (Accessed: 23 September 2016).
Jeffrey, I. (1981) Photography: A concise history. New York: Thames and Hudson.
Colorado, Ó. (2013) August Sander y el Espíritu del Tiempo. Available at: https://oscarenfotos.com/2013/03/30/august-sander-y-el-espiritu-del-tiempo/ (Accessed: 24 September 2016).
Sander, A. (1952) Farmer sowing Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sander-farmer-sowing-al00022 (Accessed: 23 September 2016).
Sander, A. (1914) Widower Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sander-widower-al00122 (Accessed: 23 September 2016).
Sander, A. (1914b) Young Farmers Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sander-young-farmers-al00014 (Accessed: 23 September 2016).
Sander, A. (1929) Boxers Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/sander-boxers-al00028 (Accessed: 23 September 2016).