This black and white photograph is a three-quarter-length portrait of an elderly man posed in formal attire outdoors in a natural setting. The man is seated and holds the hook of a wooden walking stick with his right hand while clasping the staff with his left. He is seen in sharp focus whereas the background foliage is blurred. His loose-fitting dark jacket and shirt contrasts with both the patterning of his light-coloured trousers and the silvery whiteness of his beard and hair. The darkness of the background and of the man’s clothing has the effect of focusing attention on his wizened face and piercing gaze.
The photograph was taken by August Sander using a large format, glass plate camera with a long exposure time, the kind primarily used in portrait studios. This is one of many photographs taken by him of rural people from the wooded low mountain region of Westerwald in the German federal states of Rhineland-Palatinate, Hesse, and North Rhine-Westphalia. Westerwald was the region where the photographer was born, and it was where he travelled in search of new clients after setting up his portrait studio in Cologne-Lindenthal in 1910, having returned to Germany the previous year from Linz, Austria.
The Man of the Soil belongs to the ‘Stammappe’, a portfolio of ‘archetypes’ planned as a visual preface to Sander’s life-long but incomplete project People of the Twentieth Century, which was envisioned as a comprehensive photographic index of the German population, classified into seven groups by social ‘type’. The first volume of People of the Twentieth Century was devoted to peasants and farmers. The ‘Stammappe’ was the first portfolio of this volume and consisted of twelve photographs of which The Man of the Soil (also known as Earthbound Peasant) was placed at the beginning.
Little is known of the sitter other than he was a farmer whose first name was Georg and that he came from Stein-Wingert, a Westerwald village dating back to the twelfth century close to the medieval town of Hachenburg. By placing The Man of the Soil at the beginning of the ‘Stammappe’, and in choosing this very title, Sander appears to have been interested in the metaphor of the Ur-type, or original prototype; for Sander the man functions symbolically as the ancient father of all Germans, embodying the very character of the ‘Fatherland’.
All but the third photograph of the ‘Stammappe’ were taken in the years before the First World War, although it should be observed that Sander only started to arrange these photographs systematically in the early 1920s, probably as a result of debating the social and aesthetic concerns of the day with a group of young left-wing artists known as the Cologne Progressives, some of whom often gathered at his studio. At this time, photographs for the ‘Stammappe’ portfolio, which had originally been commissioned by farming families, were each emblematically retitled to signify that the sitters represented ‘prototypical building blocks of human society’ (Greenberg 2000, p.12), for example The Philosopher (Tate AL00003), The Fighter or Revolutionary (Tate AL00004), and The Sage (Tate AL00005). The Man of the Soil, like all the other photographs in the portfolio, has a matriarchal counterpart: The Woman of the Soil 1912 (Tate AL00007) is the fifth photograph of the ‘Stammappe’, although the two were not husband and wife and did not even come from the same Westerwald village. She was a farmer’s widow and is portrayed seated in an armchair at her home in the village of Ottershagen.
August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Ulrich Keller, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1989.
Mark Greenberg (ed.), In Focus: August Sander: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles 2000.
Christian Weikop, ‘August Sander’s Der Bauer and the Pervasiveness of the Peasant Tradition’, Tate Papers, issue 19, Spring 2013, http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/august-sanders-der-bauer-and-pervasiveness-peasant-tradition, accessed 12 June 2013.
The University of Edinburgh
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