This black and white photograph is a family portrait that depicts three generations of the same farming family posed in formal attire outdoors at the edge of a forest. The three adults – two grandparents and their son – are sat on chairs, while two young girls, the eldest of which wears an embroidered dress, stand either side of their grandmother who wears a traditional black shawl around her head. The grandfather appears to be wearing some kind of waterproof outer garment, while his well-built son is dressed in bourgeois clothing, donning a suit and tie and a waistcoat with a watch chain, all markers of apparent success. He may be a widower as his wife is not present in the photograph.
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.
Three Generations of the Family 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 Three Generations of the Family was placed at the end. It is the only group portrait in the ‘Stammappe’, but corresponds to another portfolio of twelve photographs in the same volume called ‘Bauernfamilie’.
Sander felt especially close to these farming families from his homeland. In considering the genesis of People of the Twentieth Century in his 1954 introduction to the ‘Stammappe’ portfolio, Sander wrote: ‘People whose habits I had known from my youth, seemed to me through their close connection to nature, to be ideally suited for the realisation of my idea.’ (Quoted in Greenberg 2000, p.12.)
The Reus family from Heimborn, Westerwald, portrayed by Sander in this photograph, faces the photographer with solemn gazes. Although three of them are sitting, the strong verticals of the tree trunks in the background, with branches that seem to link the human subjects, suggest upstanding people of strong moral character and integrity.The trees are also suggestive of organic generational growth. The verb ‘to grow’ in German is anbauen, etymologically related to the noun Der Bauer, meaning peasant or farmer. A metaphor that was used repeatedly at the time this photograph was taken was that of a forest of many different trees encapsulating the togetherness of all German lineages. The individual tree with its many boughs that had grown out of one trunk (Stamm) attested to the notion that all the German people stemmed from the same root. During this period, the conservative and influential culture periodical Der Kunstwart (The Art Guardian) published countless essays in which trees were attributed with ‘determination – defiance – unrestrained strength – unfaltering energy’ and the resistant characteristics of wood were equated with the traits of the German people.
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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