This black and white photograph is a half-length single portrait of an elderly man posed outdoors in a natural setting. He appears to be wearing a plain smock, an outer garment traditionally worn by rural workers, and dons an equally plain wool felt hat. The dark background foliage is blurred, but his face is captured in sharp definition so that individual strands of his white beard and every crease and wrinkle of his weather-worn skin are made visible, an effect heightened by the folds of his clothes.
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 Sage 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 Sage was the fourth.
The sitter was Hermann Pithahn, a shepherd from the Westerwald village of Giesenhausen, a place dating back to the thirteenth century, close to the medieval town of Hachenburg. Sander’s depiction of him bears comparison to the Romantic-expressionist tradition of peasant representation associated with artists such as Wilhelm Leibl, Edvard Munch, Paula Modersohn-Becker, and especially Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, who between 1917–38 represented Swiss mountain peasants in every medium, including photography. Although Kirchner was an amateur photographer when compared to Sander, he shared a similar interest in capturing the rugged features of peasant folk, and a desire to convey their sense of natural wisdom and strength. The Sage also corresponds to another photograph by Sander from the same portfolio, The Man of the Soil (Tate AL00002), which presents a similar type of ancient or primitive face; both are portraits that appeal to some notion of cultural, ancestral memory.
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), and The Fighter or Revolutionary (Tate AL00004). The Sage, like all the other photographs in the portfolio, has a female counterpart (Tate AL00009), whose portrait is the eighth photograph of the ‘Stammappe’, although the two were not husband and wife and did not even come from the same Westerwald village.
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.
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