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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Juliana: This portrait that we're looking at is by August Sander, German photographer. This portrait is titled "Secretary at a Radio Station, Cologne" and it's from about 1931. Steven: Let's see if I can remember this because it's been a long time. Sander was trying to create these photographic perfect representations of types of people or types of occupations, is that right? Juliana: Exactly. Steven: Almost these sort of platonic ideals. Juliana: I don't know if they're platonic. I think you could refer to them as [earth] forms or original forms. I think he's just interested in looking at people in Germany as a particular occupational or professional class so they're types ... (break in audio) There are a lot of different things that can be drawn from this. Steven: So it's not a physiological representation? Juliana: It's related to physiognomy and who people are in terms of what they do. Steven: Okay. Beth: Is this related at all to the physiologies that ... Juliana: Yeah. Beth: ... The French did in the mid 19th century? Juliana: Yes. Sander did not have strong theories about one type of person looking or necessarily being better and more purer than another. That really wasn't his project. He was trained and worked as a portrait photographer in the early 20th century. This portrait is 1931, so for a number of years, he was doing straight portrait photographs, being paid for them in his studio. Then he becomes more interested in a kind of clinical gaze. Beth: So saying that a person's occupation actually forms their physiognomy in a way? Juliana: In a way, yes. If you look at somebody's hands, a worker, a farmer for example, would have hands that look much different from an accountant's hands. Steven: And perhaps the way that they hold themselves. (crosstalk) Steven: So it's the entire sort of representation of the person. Juliana: Right. He's trying to get a complete picture and sort of look at these connections like how do we hold ourselves and how do we present ourselves? It is about public persona because it's profession. Steven: Can I ask a technical question? Juliana: This is '31. Steven: This is his type of secretary at a radio station. Would he have photographed a whole series of secretaries and then looked for one that was most ideal in some way? Juliana: He did a series of women, so there were different types of women like farming women, women that are artists, they're professional women, intellectual women, this is probably a lower middle class or sort of new salaried woman. (crosstalk) Steven: That new threatening ... Juliana: It's exactly. Steven: ... A new woman. Juliana: She is the new woman and she has all the trappings of that art type. Beth: Did he do a series of men? Because there's a long history in photography going back to Mundy of men photographing women and looking at different types of women, especially shadowsizing working class women. Steven: Actually it goes before photography. (crosstalk) Steven: [unintelligible] Dega. Think back to, that's not before photography, but just this whole notion of the sintillating quality of ... Beth: Right, the working woman. Juliana: He has a wider gaze than that. He's looking across profession, so he has a couple of books and exhibitions that come out in the '20s and '30s. The one that was published in 1929 was called "Spaces of the Time" and that was a collection of 60 photographs. It was intended to be - Beth: Is it men and women? Juliana: It's men and women, yes. It's faces of our time in general and it organizes people by class or by occupation. He starts off with farmers. He began to take photographs of all these farmers in the Westerwald region in Germany. That's where he came up with all these different kinds of farmers; young farmers and old farmers, big huge families of farmers, farmers that are rich, farmers that are poor. He's looking at it really as a kind of scientific project. It's a sociological, anthropological study of all these and he feels like, especially in the '20s, to make sense of the changing German culture, and to make sense of all these new, different types of people that are appearing. One way to make sense of it all is sort of organize them or categorize them. Steven: It's almost kind of a documentation. Juliana: It's a huge project of documentation. It's very German. Steven: In a curious way, it reminds me of the [Bechers] later. Juliana: Well, the [Bechers] come out of that. Beth: In what way does it remind you of the [Bechers]? Steven: Just this notion of really trying to document and understand through an almost encyclopedic - Juliana: It's coming from this exact kind of imagery. The [Bechers] are looking at Sander's project and other German photographers of this period. That idea that you're constantly looking very closely, clinically, at - [unintelligible] Beth: That so reminds me of a 19th century positivist tradition of scientific categorizing, species and putting things in categories. Juliana: That comes out in how he organizes everything, but he's not going about this as immoralizing - Beth: He's not specifically moralizing. It just makes this project more modern. Steven: There's also, it may be - Juliana: And also artistic. Steven: That's true, and there may be a thin veil of it, but nevertheless, he's hanging onto neutrality. Juliana: Let's look at some of the other ones. There's a pastry chef and this is maybe a little bit more telling about the idea that it's a profession, that he's of a specific profession, because you see him with the tools of his trade. The image we looked at before, the new woman has tools of her trade, but they're a little bit less obvious. He has his outfit on, he has his pastry chef white jacket. Beth: Are they often shot in this way, straight on? Juliana: Yes, mostly full portraits or 3/4 length. Steven: At least these two are both somewhat confrontational. Juliana: Subjects generally look directly at the camera and they have that dialog with the photographer. It's often very, like there's some sort of pride. They're sort of presenting their public selves. It's hard to read. Beth: There's a kind of professional mask. Juliana: It is. It's a professional mask that you sort of take up. He's almost sort of paused in the middle of something that it also looks posed. Sander is definitely posing him. He's got light set up in a certain way that's really contrasty, it brings out the white of his jacket and then there's sort of silver and there's sort of the gleam of the bowl. Beth: And it's also so carefully composed; these lines of bins or whatever they are that sort of come and meet toward his head. It's drawing our attention to his face. It's that diagonal line of his hand going toward the corner with the spoon. Juliana: And his body takes up a significant amount of space within the image. Steven: It's really a beautifully composed image. Juliana: It is. His portraits are even more striking because of that. Here's another one. Beth: What's this one called? Juliana: This is called "Disabled Man." Steven: So this is really only a few years after the end of the first world war. Disability was incredibly public, right? Juliana: It was. This I always think is very striking and an ironic portrait. Juliana: Yeah, he's sitting in front of the stairs. He's not really sure if he has legs or what part of his legs are left, so he doesn't have prosthetics. Likely he has this half wheelchair or cart thing. He sort of gazes out, perhaps a little reproachfully at the photographer. Beth: But it's also a lovely composition with the diagonal line of the stairs and the - Juliana: The perspective is really striking. It really brings your attention ... You can't help but look at the stairs and then look back at figure who's ... Steven: And there's really this interesting mix between the tragic and the beautiful. It really makes it an enormously powerful combination. There's an attempt by the subject to retrieve a degree of dignity in his posture, in his suit coat. Juliana: Yeah, he's upright and he's staring straight out at the photographer as well. I like that kind of confrontational look. He's meeting our gaze and I feel like I'm looking right at him when I look at the image. Steven: And he's level. Steven: The photographer was down and it appears - Beth: Looking down at him, right. Steven: It's not looking down at him, even though he's at a lower level, we've assumed a kind of crouch so that we're looking across, at least that's what the orthogonal seems to suggest. Juliana: His arms are up, he's not slouched. There are other disabled war veterans that these little carts that were just vaguely like skateboards and they would push themselves on the ground. You can see a lot of those in paintings of the early 1920s. Steven: This is somebody that the public might have tried to avert their gaze from. Juliana: That's the problem, but yes. Steven: And to put this person front and center in a photograph as a subject of our gaze, is a pretty powerful ... Juliana: And I think knowing what we know is going to happen a few years from this, that people who are disabled in all sorts of ways, the Nazis tried to destroy that image of the imperfect body. I think it's the sense that this is in the public. What do they do with this kind of person? You sort of push them away, push them off to the side. I'm not trying to make Sander out as some sort of ... Steven: It's not the first image. Juliana: It's not the first image, it's not a more heroic as far as farmers, he's not with the intellectual types. Sanders does turn his camera on all different - (crosstalk) Juliana: It is encyclopedic, but he's probably in a similar section of the unemployed. He's not held up. Beth: What's interesting to me is that if this image had been filled more with pathos, if it had been more pitying, more emotional in some way, Sander might not be part of the Modernist cannon. Juliana: Right. Beth: It's this kind of detached gaze that's so much of a part of what Modernism is and as soon as sentiment enters into it, or manipulation in some way, it blurs that line in saying - Steven: The narrative is inserted then in a very direct way and the Modernist aesthetic rejects this. Beth: Right. Steven: What's interesting is that there really is a narrative here. This man is, and the wounded, are really a representation of Germany's failure during the first world war, their loss. Juliana: Right, or at least that's how we're viewing it. I always look at it as a disabled man from the war. He could be disabled from something else entirely, but there's so many images that it just sort of becomes symbolic of that. I think one of the things that Sander did that was great was used that clinical, scientific gaze where he wanted to organize all these images and it brings out the tension between science and art that I think is really, really important in photography. It's that tension that makes the images so wonderful and so striking that you really look at this stark image that doesn't seem coated with sentiment, yet also has this convention of beauty and - (crosstalk) Beth: Photography itself is scientific in some way. Juliana: Right. There's still sort of a mechnical ... I think one of the things that Sander was able to do, and one of the reasons why he started creating these images, is that he accidentally printed on a different kind of paper in about 1920. It really does make a difference. The kind of paper that you print on when you create a photograph, now we have digital images and we print on anything, really. This kind of image versus a carbon print versus [unintelligible] print, any other kind of earlier photograph, those are much more fuzzy, they're blurry. This has a sense of the artistic with a pictorial. Once you start printing on paper that has more neutral tones or even cold tones, it takes on that kind of scientific, documentary gaze so that you're looking at things and they seem more objective and they take up that guise. Whether or not they are, we end up reading them in that way. Steven: They also, for photography, might have functioned in some way, I guess this is a question, did they function in some way as a way of divorcing photography from painting, and in a sense giving photography a kind of autonomy, an aesthetic autonomy, maybe alive with science that really finally brought it away from those pictorial traditions in which it had been embedded? Juliana: That was I think, really exciting for artists, photographers in the '20s, the idea of the new photography. That was one of the reasons it was so appealing, is that the technology of [unintelligible], of the new with the science, has nothing to do with, or so they wanted to think, of painting and of the old and of tradition admired in the past. Beth: You could really create from it something entirely - (crosstalk) Steven: Except that all of the vocabulary that we've been using is embedded in the history of art and in the history of painting. Beth: What makes an image successful is just what makes an image successful in way, is what we're looking at. Steven: It's true, although embedded in its own technological and historical moment. What a terrific image. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)