This black and white photograph is a group portrait of three young men portrayed outdoors on a path in a natural setting. They stand behind each other in single file, their bodies facing in the same forward direction perpendicular to the picture plane, their heads looking to their right straight at the camera. All three of them wear suits and hats and gaze with some self-assurance directly at the photographer. The young man on the left has unkempt hair peeking out from his tilted hat, a cigarette dangling nonchalantly from his lips, and holds a wooden cane at an angle to the ground. The central figure is holding a cigarette in his left hand and clasps a cane in the other, while the man on the right and at the front of the group seems rooted to the spot, his cane held straight to the ground echoing his upright posture.
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.
Young Farmers was the sixth plate in Sander’s portrait photobook Face of Our Time, published in 1929, and also appears in the first volume of 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 photograph is one of the most widely discussed works in Sander’s oeuvre, probably because of the incongruity of the image and its relation to photographs from the ‘Stammappe’, a portfolio of ‘archetypes’ planned as a preface to People of the Twentieth Century, in which peasants and farmers are presented as solemn bible-clasping types. The Marxist art critic John Berger famously analysed the photograph in his influential essay ‘The Suit and the Photograph’ (1980) writing: ‘The date is 1914. The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countryside. Twenty or 30 years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford.’ (Berger 1980, p.30.) Berger suggests that these mass market suits, emulating the higher quality attire of the bourgeois urban class, draws attention to, rather than disguises, their ‘social caste’, and not in a particularly flattering sense. In his essay, Berger considers that the three young men are of a social group not beyond the reach of aspirational advertising campaigns and travelling salesmen, and in a state of awkward transition, succumbing to a new ‘cultural hegemony’. The posturing of these three rural ‘lads’, perhaps on their way to a dance, confounds and subverts expectations of the peasant ‘type’, especially in that they smoke cigarettes. Peasants were traditionally depicted smoking a pipe handcrafted from wood, and which like the wooden canes that appear frequently in Sander’s volume of photographs devoted to peasants and farmers, including this one, connoted an organic connection to the native soil as well as a certain time-honoured wisdom. By contrast, the mass-manufactured cigarette was often seen at the time as an urban symbol of social dissolution.
The three young farmers are perhaps aping poses they may have seen in adverts or in the silent movies shown in storefront cinemas in small towns and cities. With its mock-urban, dandy-like poses set against an out-of-focus marshy barren landscape, Young Farmers certainly has a strange cinematographic quality, and captures what cultural historian Michael Jennings has described as the ‘momentum of the transition away from the land and into the cities’ (Jennings 2000, p.32).
The photograph inspired Richard Powers’s first novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, published in 1985.
John Berger, ‘The Suit and the Photograph’ in About Looking, New York 1980, pp.27–36.
August Sander: Citizens of the Twentieth Century, ed. by Ulrich Keller, Cambridge, Massachusetts and London 1989.
Michael Jennings, ‘Agriculture, Industry, and the Birth of the Photo-Essay in the Late Weimar Republic’, October, no.93, Summer 2000, pp.23–56.
Christian Weikop, ‘August Sander’s Der Bauer and the Pervasiveness of the Peasant Tradition’, Tate Papers, issue 19, Spring 2013, http://www.tate.og.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/august-sanders-der-bauer-and-pervasiveness-peasant-tradition, accessed 12 June 2013.
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