Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Face to Face? An Ethical Encounter with Germany’s Dark Strangers in August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century

Katherine Tubb

August Sander’s portraits of marginalised subjects are often evoked as visual shorthand for his inclusive vision of the German nation. This article uses a portrait he made around 1930 showing two circus workers, an ‘Indian’ man and a white woman, to assess how Sander’s work deals with the cognitive and ethical difficulties posed to interwar Germany by its ‘dark strangers’.

We speak of [the body] to others as of a thing that belongs to us; but for us it is not entirely a thing; and it belongs to us a little less than we belong to it.
Paul Valéry 1

Between 1926 and 1932 August Sander photographed members of Germany’s famous Barum circus during their time off, engaged in everyday tasks or assembled in front of their wagons (fig.1).2 Six of these images were included in an album called The City, the penultimate volume of Sander’s magnum opus People of the Twentieth Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhundert), an exhaustive visual document of the diversity of ‘archetypal’ individuals who made up the German people. During the Weimar era (1918–33) circus caravans wound their way across Germany, occupying urban wastelands and other ‘in-between’ spaces, momentarily revitalising them as sites of wonder, exoticism and permissiveness. In the popular culture of Sander’s Germany, the mobile circus milieu was synonymous with ‘dangerous’ and ‘primitive’ types – particularly gypsies and people of colour.3 Sander’s dispassionate circus shots feature both these ‘types’. Historians have used them to illustrate the photographer’s liberal values, values that led to his victimisation under Nazism.4 However, although Sander avoided taking photographs that simplified individual and collective identities or rendered them absolute, his subjects never become detached from the social order that determined their position in People of the Twentieth Century. The anthropologist Marc Augé has written that every individual expresses the ‘totality’ of their social order ‘from a certain angle’.5 The same could be said for Sander’s portraits and his images of circus people. While Sander expressed apparent sympathy for his subjects’ marginal status, his pictures of them nonetheless recall the motifs used to represent them in mainstream culture.

August Sander, ‘Circus Workers’ c.1926–32, printed 1990
August Sander
Circus Workers c.1926–32, printed 1990
ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d'Offay 2010
© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne; DACS, London, 2018.

Postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha has remarked that a photograph can contain a ‘double exposure’.6 He argues that its ‘main frame’ determines its primary meaning, but, with reference to the philosopher Roland Barthes, he proposes that it can have a blind spot, or ‘punctum’, too.7 While the main frame encompasses what is visibly identifiable, the punctum is an ‘accident’ in the image, something which displaces the primary meaning, and introduces new ‘knowledges, experiences, and affects’.8 According to Bhabha, photographs can reveal the ‘double lives’ that some individuals lead between the mainstream and the margins of culture.9 Sander captures such lives in his portraits of circus workers, particularly in one photograph, taken some time between 1926 and 1932, which shows a man of colour and a white woman sitting by a tent having tea (fig.1). In line with the 2001 publication of People of the Twentieth Century, the Tate title for this work is simply Circus Workers. However, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York titles the copy of the print in its collection Indian Man and German Woman.10 (This article refers to the man as Indian for the sake of clarity, and does not seek to conclusively define his racial identity.) While the Weimar historian Eric D. Weitz has proposed that this picture demonstrates Sander’s liberal views, MoMA’s title evokes the entanglements of sex, race and nation that Sander captured in this portrait, concepts that played a powerful role in shaping Weimar culture.11

During the Weimar era the ‘primitive’, as both a concept and also a human subject, had three potent associations: jazz, America, and Germany’s lost colonies in East Africa. Around these revolved the dialectics of vital transnationalism and national shame, of progress and decay. Since the late nineteenth century modern Western artists such as Edouard Manet (1832–1883), Paul Gauguin (1848–1903) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) had been painting pictures of non-Caucasian subjects and exotic cultures – understood within a colonial context – and such works had served to assert their own bohemian status. There was a slippage in their work, however, between their study of tribal art and received notions of the primitive promulgated by popular culture.12 For example, the German expressionist painter Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880–1938) painted and photographed Sam and Millie, a black couple whom scholars have variously identified as ‘circus,’ ‘jazz’ and ‘Black American’ artistes, against tribal backdrops that celebrated the art of Palau, an early German colony.13 After the First World War, which saw Germany dispossessed of its colonies, New Objectivity artists such as Max Beckmann and Otto Dix depicted themselves in nightclubs watching shows by black jazz musicians with ambivalent, often detached fascination; for them, these performers signified an atavistic, urban – and American – modernity.14 In the Weimar period, to depict a person of colour was to take a socio-political position on this modernity, on German-ness, and on the tensions between them. As such, interwar artists often conflated different ‘primitive’ identities (for example, African and Indian), instrumentalising them in order to understand their own changing world.15

Circus acts were one popular medium through which Germans came to know, or at least encounter, the ‘primitive’. Sander took his portraits at Barum’s American Caravan Menagerie (Barum’s amerikanische Karawanen-Menagerie), a circus formed in 1878 to compete with the American P.T. Barnum enterprise that toured Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. A major attraction at P.T. Barnum’s (as at other circuses) was a lavish ethnographic spectacle in which Indians played out static clichés of oriental life, as pastoral types or as supplicants to colonial (British) rule.16 Since Germany trailed the British and Dutch in the colonial race, Germans arguably saw in these displays their country’s aspirations to world greatness. With the advent of film – a far cheaper means of producing and showing such spectacles – circus acts of this kind declined but did not die out. At Barum’s circus, for example, a Cameroonian man named Hermann Kessern, who came to Germany in 1912 at the age of twenty-two, played a fakir (a Muslim Sufi ascetic) alongside a female snake charmer, Asita, battling snakes and crocodiles in a daring act called ‘In the Temple of Shiva’. 17 Such narratives illustrate the ways in which exotic identities – African and Indian – were amalgamated in popular entertainment at the time, the colonial implications of which endured into the Weimar era. For example, Weimar travel books described East Africa, which Germany had colonised in 1884, as a lush ‘German India’, rivalling the territories of the British and the Dutch. Although they thought of it as chaotic and excessive, German orientalists perpetuated India’s mythic status as the Urwelt, or primeval origin of European culture. The Romantic poet and critic A.W. Schlegel had posited that if mankind’s origins and its regeneration lay in India, then Germany was Europe’s India. This was not an expression of racial kinship, but of Romantic ideals that endured in the convictions of a minority of twentieth-century colonialists who urged Germany to capture India from the British.18 After Germany had lost its colonies, the Indian in Sander’s photograph would have evoked, as much as a person of African origin, Germany’s failings as a world power.

If a fascination with the ‘primitive’ was a defining feature of modernist aesthetics, Sander’s detached style, however, suggests that he was immune to their allure. Unlike the painters discussed above, Sander did not define himself, personally, in relation to the subjects of Circus Workers. The Weimar intellectual Walter Benjamin, citing the Romantic writer Johann Wolfgang Goethe, described Sander’s photographic objectivity as ‘tender empiricism’ – scientific but humane, and intimately involved with the individual subject.19 Yet it is hard to be objective about Sander’s image of the two sitters and their relationship to one another. The image could be considered, for example, in relation to a gendered idea of the foreign, inflected with Germany’s complex colonial past; or, in the context of People of the Twentieth Century, it could be interpreted as a reminder to the young, democratic country that it should observe democratic principles in its treatment of strangers. On the other hand, it might serve as a foil to shore up the stolid bourgeois identities so prevalent in Sander’s taxonomy; or it might point to the impossibilities of racial inclusiveness under the laws of a German nation that determined citizenship by blood. The range of interpretations and attitudes the image might have proffered suggests that, in this instance, Sander’s ambitions were anything but objective. This essay explores these attitudes to find out to what extent this photograph speaks about, to, or on behalf of its Indian subject, or indeed whether or not it provides an opportunity for him to speak for himself.

A cyclical narrative of decay unfolds over the seven volumes of photographs that constitute People of the Twentieth Century: from the origins of civilisation and its close relation to the land (represented by farmers), to its ascendancy to intellectual creativity (represented by white-collar workers), to its degeneration as urbanisation and industrialisation advance. Sander placed his portraits of circus people in the penultimate volume, The City, which also contains pictures of persecuted Jews and political prisoners. These images usher in the seventh and final volume, The Last People, which addresses the ramifications of the First World War, implying that it was a catalyst for social decline. Following the crisp surface logic of Sander’s archive, the circus people can be read as symbols of society’s decay, representing the regressive antithesis of bourgeois professionals. Yet their significance in People of the Twentieth Century is more complex than this. Sander had planned to include many double portraits in his book; for example a pair of usherettes, preceded by a pair of gypsies, followed by two dwarves. All of them are circus types. Art historian George Baker has argued that, cumulatively, these double portraits create an uncanny effect. For him, the doublings in People of the Twentieth Century reveal its ‘intellectual uncertainty’, in that they level all ‘distinctions between one site of the typology and the next’.20 People of the Twentieth Century structures these sites as if they were stable and discrete, but as particular motifs proliferate across them they are revealed to be ‘unanchorable’.21 In this context it is important that the circus transmits, or sets in motion, some of the doublings that render Sander’s taxonomy indistinct; it is (literally) an ‘unanchorable’ milieu, which is historically construed as deviant. As cultural historian Sander Gilman has stated, the circus is ‘a very specific space, and it gives character to the person in it’.22 Notably, Sander positioned his images of circus people between portfolios on ‘Street Life’ and ‘Festivities’ (like Carnival andCorpus Christi), aligning it with other temporally unstable spaces. Their associated inhabitants included people of colour, onto whom Weimar culture projected fantasies about the primitive, of miscegenation, for example, or of spiritual revitalisation. Together with tropes of regression, Weimar thinkers used these fantasies to organise – or anchor – a transitional world. However, as Baker points out, in Sander’s circus photographs a ‘complex interplay’ emerges between the ‘historical reality’ in which his sitters lived and the ‘subjective processes of fantasy’ to which they were exposed.23

Circus Workers is the only depiction of interracial gender relations in Sander’s work. As a unique image it does not contribute to the visual repetitions that elsewhere foil his taxonomy. However, it does stand in relation to Sander’s other images of circus people, and to the familial pairings – married couples, friends, siblings – that populate People of the Twentieth Century. Yet unlike those pictures, Circus Workers is split by race, sex, blood and, according to MoMA’s title, nation. It calls attention to something the French philosophers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir called ‘facticity’: the concrete details of the subjects’ lives they did not choose but which inform and limit their human freedoms, namely race and sex. De Beauvoir stated that social rituals reinforced the limitations that this ‘facticity’ imposed on individuals and on the historical situation of groups.24 She argued that these rituals were often too powerful for particular groups (women, for example) to combat. But in Circus Workers, Sander’s subjects – a white woman and a black man – meet in the fabled freedom of the circus and enact the most quotidian and civil social ritual – having tea – albeit in makeshift fashion; the pair sit on fold-down chairs by a tent, drinking from a flask. Yet the china, table and tablecloth point symbolically to a static, bourgeois domesticity, registering a powerful correspondence between Sander’s marginal subjects and his bourgeois portraits.

In Circus Workers the rituals of Sander’s Germany seem to have been opened up to the Indian so as to accommodate him. He is not bound by them, however, in that he occupies an in-between space (the circus). While the Indian is rootless, Sander as the photographer is cognitively distant; they align together as strangers in society. This shot ostensibly affirms Sander’s expansive gaze, under which his subject facilitates illuminating reflections onGermany, auguring its liberal renewal. Sander’s aim was to collate hundreds of individual portraits into a universal picture of society. However, as Baker recognises, it was this very ambition that made Sander’s project so unstable. For if there was only one universal social portrait, then how could there be a Germany to taxonomise? And if there was a national entity to classify, universalism could not apply. A decision had to be made about who was in and who was out, which begs the question where did that leave the sitters in this picture?

It has been well documented that in the Weimar era mass culture and new political models (in particular, socialism and fascism) disrupted the once-centred identity of Germany’s middle class. But Sander’s bourgeois portraits signified the ‘possessive individualism’ of a social order in which the ‘legal basis of the self lies in the model of property rights’.25 Steady and repetitive, his bourgeois portraits build an insistent, even obstinate vision of the continuing solidity of the middle class. However, during the Weimar era the middle class was undergoing radical transition. In People of the Twentieth Century Sander sought to depict an old identity in a new world that could no longer accommodate it. It is not inconceivable, therefore, that Sander included the two circus workers, existing as they did on the periphery of society, in order to re-affirm those who had once been assured their place at its centre.

In the impromptu act of taking tea, the two circus workers transpose its signifiers (china, table, tablecloth), from the private sphere into a communal milieu, the non-space occupied by the circus. Here, however, there are none of the permanent demarcations of private property that affirmed the bourgeois self in, for example, Sander’s portraits of farm people. The pair are only borrowing the symbols of bourgeois life. Yet Sander does not alter his visual syntax for them, which causes a split to emerge between his subject (the stranger) and his style (bourgeois portraiture). The very order Sander’s style evokes thus appears unsound. However, recalling the philosopher Martin Heidegger’s view that belonging is predicated upon possessing, the man and woman mimic the socio-ritual trappings of private ownership, but, owning nothing concrete (the tablecloth, for example, is a rough-edged makeshift), belonging nowhere, they are nothing in this order.26 They possess no markers of identity that are theirs and theirs alone. Thus, if their selfhood is deniable, their non-being acts as an ameliorative foil that serves to reaffirm the bourgeois self to whom Sander’s style belongs. For the art historian Hal Foster style can structure a subject and a subject can impel a style into being.27 This photograph cleaves to the portrait form, and exercises both honorific and repressive force on its marginal subjects. Sander invites their otherness yet nullifies it.28 In mapping onto the pair’s racial-sexual split a desire to restore bourgeois identity, Sander obfuscates his subjects as individuals. For the feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva, ‘Living with the other … means to make oneself other for oneself’.29 In Weimar culture this desire was often expressed in terms of pseudo-imperial encounters, governed by such ambivalence, with the ‘primitive’.

In Germany’s colonies sexual relations, particularly interracial ones, were regulated under colonial laws that distinguished between black and white, between African colony and German metropole. These in turn informed domestic laws about biopolitical categories of citizenship, including jus sanguinis.30 Cultural output of the colonial era often depicted German men seduced by the pre-Oedipal attractions of native women, and flaxen-haired German women ‘possessed’ by brutish black males. After the First World War Germany’s blood boundaries, enshrined in law, were penetrated when French troops, including a minority of North African colonial subjects, occupied theRhineland. Interracial sex relations, wherever manifest, subsequently took on an even more powerful meaning in Germany’s social psyche.

In a 1926 review of the black jazz troupe Revue Nègre the poet Yvan Goll declared that a ‘transfusion’ of negro blood was ‘conquering’ – and reviving – Europe.31 A year earlier the eugenicist Hans Harmsen wrote of an ‘invasion’ of negro men into Germany, raising the spectre of miscegenation. Harmsen felt that the French approach to colonialism was so lenient it had caused the Vernegerung Frankreichs (the negro-isation of France), and feared the same fate for an occupied Germany.32 These writers illustrate how non-Caucasian foreigners were often essentialised in the Weimar Republic as having either a positive or negative influence on the nation. Indeed, Weimar culture did not erect effigies of the ‘dark stranger’ simply to burn them, exorcising from the new body politic the uncertainties of post-war life. If this were the case, Sander’s photograph would be a straightforwardly oppositional work. The Republic’s cultural tropes depicted the stranger as a vital link to the New World (to be invited in), and as an agent of German abjection (to be expelled); black revues like The Chocolate Kiddies enjoyed great commercial success; Ernst Krenek’s 1927 jazz opera Jonny Strikes Up! (Jonny spielt auf!) prompted explosive responses from the political left and right; romantic transfigurations of oriental life (African or other) were popular in film and reportage; while the Rhineland’s occupation led to the circulation of posters showing cartoon apes in French uniforms manhandling nude German blondes. Amid the racial turbulence incited by narratives of national progress and decay, German culture pressed the ‘dark stranger’ into a friend/enemy dialectic from which he always came out doubly over- and under-determined.33

It was against this backdrop that Sander photographed his subjects. The Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that the stranger’s presence in a society makes him, potentially, an object of that society’s responsibility.34 Bauman articulates this idea using the term ‘face’, which was developed by the ethical philosopher Emmanuel Levinas to describe the aspects of a person’s strangeness that place a culture in a position of ethical responsibility to him; these include ‘unassumingness’ and ‘silence.’35 For Levinas ‘face’ involves language, which he identified with vision.36 In his view, the ideal relation between members of society and the stranger is transitive and non-violent. In physical proximity to one another, the two circus workers engage in a ‘face-to-face’ conversation that exceeds the conventional ‘us-and-them’ ways in which society views and discusses strangers. While Levinas took a contradictory Platonic stance on art, his ideas are useful in framing Sander’s photograph as a (potential) ‘face-to-face’ encounter. Sander seems to give the man in this picture ‘face’ by placing the viewer in a position of ethical obligation to him. By casting the dark stranger as a clown or brute, Weimar culture denied this obligation, absorbed as it was in collective post-war pain.

Levinas stated that when a society is exposed to the stranger it is denuded; all the ‘protective layers’ are stripped from the body of knowledge that informs its collective beliefs. The dark stranger became over-determined in the Weimar Republic’s visual culture at a time when modernism queried the (white) body’s legitimacy as a ‘cognizable autonomous subject’.37 As a fraught and inflammatory figure, the stranger breached Weimar culture’s ‘protective layers’, including its laws; indeed, when he did not fit the elemental forms ascribed to him (clown or brute), he even upset public order. Weimar historian Peter Jelavich, for example, has quoted Dresden police describing how a Cameroonian dancer, on an outing with his German wife and three-year old daughter, was ‘literally spit upon, even by workers’.38 The subjects of Sander’s photograph engage in a similarly quotidian act. Sander must have known that by depicting it he could excite visceral responses that might disrupt the civilising force his archival project exerted on Weimar society. It is as if this image were intended to lay down an ethical gauntlet to the structural logic of People of the Twentieth Century.

Sander’s liberal values were discrete from the issue of how or whether his photographic encounter with the Indian circus worker was, in Levinas’s terms, ‘face to face’. Kristeva has argued that a discourse of crisis characterises cultures in which hybridisation and strengthening nationalism occur. For her, it is at the ‘crossroads’ or ‘joins’ between society and its strangers that ‘men and women of the borderlands … rooted in no language or blood’ – like Sander’s circus pair – pose an ethical and symbolic challenge to notions of ‘authentic’ citizenship.39 While Kristeva’s thesis tends toward idealisation, privileging the marginal in all its guises, it brings the cultural tropes and the legal limits of strangeness together, which makes it useful in assessing how Sander’s photograph stages the Weimar Republic’s difficulties with social heterogeneity.

The subjects of Sander’s photograph can only be described as a pair, not a couple, because the image does not show conclusively what their relationship was, although both figures appear to be wearing wedding bands. The woman rests her hands on the table, on which the man plants his left elbow, his hand draped down. Both hold similar glass bottles and drink straight from them; this breach of another ‘protective layer’ – bourgeois decorum – is at odds with the tablecloth and china. Sander’s project was intended to elucidate, even fix social history simply by recording it. This photograph, which cannot fix or root its subjects, calls this mission into question. The pair’s status as a married couple might be less in doubt were the scene to be transposed to the domestic interiors it recalls. But Sander frames the photograph to include a sag in the tent wall behind them, and a taut length of rope at the top, both of which attest to the temporary space they occupy. Similarly, the dry, scuffed-up ground beneath their feet indicates that it has been traversed over and over. Unlike domestic sites (which are conventionally sacrosanct and static), this is a rough meeting ground, a crossroads for multiple, incidental interactions. Sander’s photograph might represent a chance meeting of colleagues, not a marital ritual. In this context – characterised by a lack of fixity – the man appears to be relieved of any cultural over-determinations beyond his facticity, and Levinas’s ethical challenge is met.

The man’s posture is quietly proprietorial. His elbow rests on the table, his head inclines towards his companion and his crossed leg points in her direction. Yet she bears no signs of possession. She does not fit the popular typology of an Aryan blonde ‘taken’ by a dark stranger as seen in Weimar films, for example Maria Among the Cannibals (1919), or in art, such as Frans Masereel’s black and white woodcut Jazz 1931 (Galerie Bodo Niemann, Berlin), in which leering black trumpeters impel a nude white woman into ecstatic movement.40 Instead the woman is ample, convivial, and sits square on to Sander’s camera. Her freedom affords the man his, putting her whiteness and her German-ness in a novel relation to his darkness. She is his foil, his vessel, not vice versa. It might be problematic that he should require her presence to be seen in this way; indeed, it is something akin to being spoken for. However, it is she who, despite smiling, looks away from Sander’s lens. This, for me, is the photograph’s punctum, the meaningful accident that Sander captured. His body points to hers, as if to show that he is not a contagious influence, but the viewer can only answer his gaze and the questions he poses to them, as Weimar citizens, about his status, and theirs.

Sander took another photograph of an Indian in Barum’s circus in which a similar punctum occurs. In it, an Indian man stands by his seated manager, wearing a turban and a salwar kameez. Both have their arms folded. But while the manager appears relaxed, the Indian’s chest is pushed out in an odd contrapposto pose. He awkwardly emulates his manager’s authoritative attitude, testifying to his subjugation in a pitiable way. However, according to Bhabha, by imitating his master, the colonial subject can potentially upset the bond of control between them.41 In this photograph, however, the source of this disturbance is not the Indian’s gesture, but his gaze: his German manager looks almost beyond the frame, but the Indian, a stranger, looks straight at Sander’s lens. In this moment, Sander has captured a conventional power relationship not upended exactly, but clearly displaced. In an era haunted by the lost colonies that helped constitute Germany’s modern sense of self, such displacements of an authoritative (German) gaze might have been particularly challenging. In meeting the viewer’s gaze, the Indian men in Circus Workers and Indian with Manager seem to pose a threat by asserting their own selves. Yet in the latter image the Indian’s identity is under-written by his uneasy, vulnerable mimicry. In addressing his ‘strangeness’, the viewer must negotiate the human complexities of his presence, not merely its phantasmic signs.

For Bhabha it was on the ‘margins of metropolitan desire’, in spaces like the circus, that the stranger’s dark skin was split into signs of bestiality (the clown and the brute). Indeed, the circus ring, featuring Nietzschean supermen and their primal, ape-like inverse, played out racially inflected ‘dynamics of human exceptionalism and descent’.42 While few career barriers existed for non-Caucasian circus performers, on stage their skin colour was often treated crudely, conflated, for example, with disability, as Christian Schad’s 1929 painting of circus colleagues Agosta the Pigeon-Chested Man and Rascha the Black Dove shows. But for Yvan Goll, the dark body merged physical power, or bodily exceptionalism, with the primeval. He wrote: ‘They dance with their legs, breasts, and bellies … This is the dance of the Negroes … this is life, sun, primeval forests and the roar of a leopard, earth … They dance with their blood, with their life’.43

It was as if only in perpetual displays of instinctive motion, as a temporal ‘other’, did the dark stranger speak to, and in, Weimar culture. But the Indian in Circus Workers is still. It is not the stillness of photographic arrest, commonly thought to be a condition of the medium. Nor is it the immobility that an archival impulse forces upon its subjects.44 This image makes its point by depicting the Indian in the ordinary physical stasis of rest. His body is as contained as it is proprietorial. With his limbs settled and his gaze planted, he refuses (or counters) the kinesis, both violent and vital, into which Weimar culture urged the dark body. There is pathos in the certitude with which the Indian takes up this position, since it is here, where saxophones and jungle drums do not play, that Sander provides an opportunity for a face-to-face encounter with Weimar’s stranger.

As has been argued, the dark stranger was a symbol of atavism and modernism in Weimar culture. In a Freudian sense, he embodied an aberration in the nation’s social psyche, its state of becoming, caught between pre-modern (Wilhelmine) and modern eras. Scholars Dana Seitler and Valerie Rohy have written that discourses of atavism in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries framed the dark stranger (as an image and a person) as an anachronism that served to ratify, in the linear view of time, who was fit for modernity and who was not.45 While People of the Twentieth Century recalls the eugenic archives that supported such discourses, Sander’s photographs themselves offer no such judgement. Circus Workers, for example, stands for the liminality of Weimar Germany’s legal, rhetorical and temporal precincts. Like many other images in the opus, it exceeds the role Sander allocated for it, and makes a statement about its era, beyond the everyday event it records. Bhabha has stated that moments of ‘presence’ which exceed notions of ‘past and present’ or ‘us and them’ can be found where everyday occurrences and historical narratives part company. In these moments, the stranger and society can address each other. Sander’s photograph, in which the signs of legal and domestic relations are unstable, but in which the man’s look is clear, still, and searching, pictures such a moment.

Writing in the 1950s, the philosopher Frantz Fanon stated that the colonised individual exists in a state of muscular tension that expresses itself only in sporadic moments of frenzied, violent physical outburst, including tribal dance.46 Extending this idea, cultural historian Harvey Young has written more recently that stillness, for the black body, can therefore be both a mode of reclamation and also resistance to fixed cultural identity.47 In Circus Workers the man’s stillness oscillates between the two. His open poise (chest relaxed, limbs at rest) reclaims the dark body as a locus of personal, humane stasis from clichéd representations of performed movement. His face, however, resists; he is impassive, as if to smile would be to perform. Such lack of expression is not unusual in Sander’s oeuvre; few subjects smile in People of the Twentieth Century. But the Indian man in Circus Workers is not just one reserved sitter among others. In contrast to his companion’s jovial expression, his face reveals the particular and deliberate effort he makes to look Weimar society in the eye in his physical and photographic stillness. This is the man’s moment of presence, in which his vulnerability demands an ethical, ‘face-to-face’ response from the viewer.

The man and woman relate as persons, and their relationship posits a moderate, more ethical, everyday discourse between society and its strangers. Sander’s image, then, proposes the ‘margins of metropolitan desire’ (the circus) as a space more demotic than that of Weimar’s body politic. But such border spaces tread a fine line between exclusion and emancipation. The man’s stillness is symbolic only because it counters the frenetic movement that Weimar culture projected onto his body; as Young has remarked, the ‘abstracted and imagined figure [of the moving stranger] shadows or doubles’ him.48 Indeed, as this analysis of the man’s posture indicates, his stillness occasions scopic scrutiny of his body as much as if he were on stage, albeit scrutiny of a different kind.

The man’s white companion, in a plain dress and hat, could pass for a subject in Weimar society’s urban world, but the Indian man looks incongruous; his vest and braces, exposed in casual repose, jar with his tuxedo trousers. Incidentally, two usherettes in another of Sander’s circus portraits wear the same trousers as part of their pseudo-military uniform.49 The image depicts various circus performers posed in front of a caravan. One of the usherettes, a woman, is on the far left, while a black man, seated on the opposite side, wears similar regalia. This detail proliferates across Sander’s circus images, leaking into his portrait of the Indian. If, as Baker wrote, the doublings in People of the Twentieth Century undo its conservative order, this image arguably constrains its liberal (and liberating) elements. Whether the garb of an usher or a performer, the Indian’s clothing is a signifier of service that interferes with his moment of self-possession. Perhaps he performs, in the tent behind him, as the clown, the slave or the savage – none of which he is in Sander’s photograph. This would bracket any ‘face-to-face’, ethical encounter with the Indian, in his stillness. The picture fails, finally, to exceed the symbolic kinesis that Weimar culture imposed on its dark strangers.

Cultural theorist Radhika Monhanram has written that the ethnic body resonates with meaning only when ‘it is considered to be geographically or socially in or out of place’.50 The idea that the Indian’s stasis is ‘out of place’ among the Weimar Republic’s potent symbols for otherness arguably confirms this view. It would be naïve to see this photograph as a ‘face-to-face’ ethical encounter powerful enough to break the social order that organises People of the Twentieth Century. Walter Benjamin claimed that Sander’s work was ‘an atlas of instruction’ for modernity, yet its lessons in life lived close with the stranger were only partially successful.51

The Indian’s ‘face-to-face’ claim to his own identity is annexed in the ‘non-space’ of the circus, where it cannot challenge the jus sanguinis laws that Weimar Germany sustained from its colonial past, laws that distinguished between the rights of a man and the rights of a citizen. Like Sander’s portrait, this analysis must negotiate contradictions that coalesce, still, around the ‘dark stranger’. The difficulties of assigning him meaning are indicated by the fact that this man, like Kirchner’s black models Sam and Millie, has no stable signification, even now, in historical records. Such mutability is not incidental; it structures knowledge, and demands a perpetual reassessment of how skin, its colours, and its differences are spoken about. Viewing Sander’s photograph of this man and his companion is to see a contemporary ethical problem historically framed. It requires not just art historical excavation, but self-excavation also. On both counts, now, as in Sander’s time, nothing is as plain as black and white.

See also