Science for Artists

Inspiration and Truth

On Photography

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Peasant Woman, Westerwald,
August Sander
German, negative 1910-1914, print about 1930
Gelatin silver print

An excerpt from On Photography by Susan Sontag (p.54-55)

Some photographers set up as scientists, others as moralists. The scientists make an inventory of the world; the moralists concentrate on hard cases. An example of photography-as-science is the project August Sander began in 1911: a photographic catalogue of the German people. In contrast to George Grosz’s drawing, which summed up the spirit and variety of social types in Weimar Germany through caricature, Sander’s “archetype pictures” (as he called them) imply a pseudo-scientific neutrality similar to that claimed by the covertly partisan typological sciences that sprang up in the nineteenth century like phrenology, criminology, psychiatry for their representative character as that he assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks. Each person photographed was a sign of a certain trade, class, or profession. All his subjects are representative, equally representative, a given social reality–their own.

Sander’s look is not unkind; it is permissive, unjudging… People face Sander’s camera … but their gaze is not intimate, revealing Sander was not looking for secrets; he was observing the typical. Society contains no mystery. Like Eadweard Muybridge whose photographic studies in the 1880s managed to dispel conceptions about what everybody had always seen (how horses gallop, how people move) because he had subdivided the subjects movements into precise and lengthy enough sequence of shots. Sander aimed to shed light on the social order by atomizing it into an indefinite number of social types. It doesn’t seem surprising that in 1924, five years after its publication, the Nazis impounded the unsold copies of Sander’s book Antlitz der Zeit (The Face of Our Time) and destroyed the printing blocks, thus bringing his national-portrait project to an abrupt end… The charge was that Sander’s project was anti-social. What might have seemed anti-social to Nazis was his idea of the photographer as an impassive census-taker, the completeness whose record would render all commentary, or even judgment, superfluous.

Visual Reference:

Author: KC

I am Katarina Countiss, a multimedia designer. I like blogs, games, art and technology. I am curious about how things are made.

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