Tate Papers ISSN 1753-9854

Face-Off in Weimar Culture: The Physiognomic Paradigm, Competing Portrait Anthologies, and August Sander’s Face of Our Time

August Sander’s photobook Face of Our Time is discussed in relation to interest in physiognomy in Weimar Germany. Much of this book’s success was owed to the obsession of both left- and right-wing writers with the idea that modernity reduced individuality and facial expressiveness. 

August Sander’s 1929 photobook Face of Our Time (Antlitz der Zeit), and the broader project it initiated, was only one in a series of photographic albums depicting German people published during the last years of the Weimar Republic. Exploiting the expressive features of the face, the albums attested to the importance and prestige attached to physiognomy in this period. They participated in a visual discourse about what was essential or accidental in the human face, whether any truth about the individual, or the fate of a community, or indeed a whole nation’s culture, was revealed in its citizens’ faces and, if not, whether the difficulty posed by reading contemporary faces was a symptom of cultural degeneration. Conservative cultural critics lamented that contemporary people wore their dull faces like masks, while some defenders of modernity spoke with similar fervour of the desirability of acquiring a mask-like, blank, impermeable face. Many academics included physiognomy within their scholarly studies without running the risk of discrediting themselves.1 That did not mean, however, that the epistemological problems of physiognomic analysis were completely ignored. In 1931 the philosopher Karl Jaspers fiercely attacked his fellow countrymen’s obsession with physiognomy in an account of the intellectual tendencies of his time. Criticising socialism, psychologism and anthropology in his widely distributed essay, he pointed out that physiognomic thinking was bound to fail when challenged by philosophical doubt, and lamented the ubiquity of physiognomy in cultural theory and practice.2 In Jasper’s view, it was the adoration of an aristocratic idea of man, and the hatred of everything supposedly un-aristocratic, that led proponents of physiognomy to imbue the races, professions and bodies they were claiming to describe objectively with unacknowledged sympathy and antipathy.

Jasper’s critique was timely. In a review of several albums of photographic portraits written by the critic Franz Evers in 1930, readers were reminded that only twenty years earlier any author referring to physiognomy or ‘judging a person’s essence and character, his nature and talents’ would have been ridiculed.3 Yet more recently, Evers observed appreciatively, the illustrated magazines were teeming with physiognomic galleries and physiognomic competitions. It is clear from the review that Evers was mainly concerned with the traditional focus of physiognomists, that is, the nature and character of the individual. Accordingly, he praised a book of portraits called People of Our Time (Menschen der Zeit), which was entirely traditional in concept and design.4 Published earlier that same year, it assembled a virtual hall of fame – ‘one hundred and one photographs of important men and women from recent and contemporary Germany’ – with contributions from studio photographers who, despite working in slightly different ways, produced photographs that were all quite traditional aesthetically. The very fact that the reviewer singled out such an unexceptional book suggests how commonplace physiognomic thinking had become in discourse on the state of the individual in the modern world.

Literary historian Bernhard Jahn has argued that the fashion for physiognomy in Weimar literature profited from photographic picture books.5 In fact, it was rather the other way round. Sander’s Face of Our Time was published in 1929 and was rapidly followed by other competitor albums of photographic portraits. These other publications, however, may not have been following Sander’s example so much as reflecting and contributing to a more general upsurge of interest in physiognomy. Actually, Face of Our Time was part of a broad impulse to visually archive the German people in the light of the belief, widely shared by intellectuals and writers across the political spectrum, that the social and cultural conditions of the time could be read in people’s faces. This in turn may explain why contemporary critics said very little about the formal features of Sander’s or indeed any other photographer’s work. It seems that there was a longing for fixed patterns at a time of unrest. Physiognomy and typology, as outlined by Jaspers, were crucial means with which photographers, critics and ideologues could diagnose the symptoms of the social and economic crisis that shook the country after its brief period of prosperity following the end of the First World War. In short, the photobooks under discussion in this essay capitalised on the widespread concern for the loss of collective identity that came with modernisation, and on the alleged epistemological significance of physiognomy cherished by so many intellectuals. They can be regarded as products of the cultural uncertainty that haunted Germany during the fatal economic crisis of the late 1920s and early 1930s and the social problems it precipitated.

It has only recently been fully acknowledged that, together with magazines, books were crucial for financing and circulating modern photography during the 1920s.6 Picture books also helped establish the idea that a sequence of images represents a narrative in its own right. Sander’s Face of Our Time demonstrates this point. The book was meant to advance his even more ambitious physiognomic project People of the Twentieth Century, and on its own it does not do justice to the scale of Sander’s ambition. Yet it attracted enormous attention, and may have had a bearing on the conception of Helmar Lerski’s Everyday Heads (Köpfe des Alltags 1931), Erich Retzlaff’s German People (Deutsche Menschen 1931), and Erna Lendvai-Dircksen’s Face of the German People (Das deutsche Volksgesicht 1932). These four publications, including Sander’s, were much more closely related to each other in concept and ambition than they were to the 1930 publication People of Our Time. Lerski and Lendvai-Dircksen were born at approximately the same time as Sander, and like him had been successful portrait photographers for two decades before publishing their respective photobooks. Like the younger Retzlaff, however, they were only able to profit from the burgeoning photobook market towards the end of the 1920s. It seems that it was only after Sander’s publication that they endeavoured to provide examples of the sympathy and antipathy considered by Jaspers to have been the driving force behind contemporary physiognomic typology. This approach is most obvious in Retzlaff’s two-volume publication German People and Lendvai-Dircksen’s Face of the German People, both of which focus on rural communities and identities formed by collective labour in the picture sequences and accompanying texts. If there were any doubts about the political motivations of the photographers, they were dispelled by Retzlaff’s and Lendvai-Dircksen’s pre-1933 membership of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Jewish photographer Lerski’s Everyday Heads, meanwhile, betrayed no hostility towards urban Weimar modernism, and his later émigré fate only confirmed his book’s incompatibility with cultural trends under the Nazi regime. Indeed, Lerski’s oeuvre was later heralded by socialist art critics, while Sander, whose professional difficulties throughout the Third Reich are well known, was also adopted by leftist art historians at the start of his post-war reappraisal.7 a result, differences have been stressed between Sander’s and Lerski’s projects on the one hand, and Lendvai-Dircksen’s and Retzlaff’s on the other whenever they have been mentioned together in scholarly texts. The politics of Sander’s book, however, are hard to pin down, and have been described as conservative in more recent analyses.8 While critics are right to suggest that Sander’s ideas were far from progressive, they may have overstated the case against his project by overemphasising the traditional values of Sander’s archival paradigm. Contemporary audiences certainly did not feel his work advocated a right-wing cause.

In his critique of popular ideologies, Jaspers insisted that the structural patterns underlying contemporary world views should not be aligned with particular political camps. Attractive as the physiognomic method was for the Nazis’ anthropology, it was not an exclusively right-wing pursuit. Sander’s Face of Our Time is a case in point. He pursued an image of German society organised according to social orders. Celebrated author Alfred Döblin wrote the book’s introduction, which was followed by sixty plates: portraits of villagers, small-town residents, city dwellers, beggars, bankers, artists, children, students and the elderly were gathered to form a cross-section of German society (figs.1 and 2). The pictures are stylistically homogenous, with Sander generally relying on full-face and three-quarter views and more often than not on eye-to-eye contact between the sitters and the camera. This gave the individuals an uncanny familiarity, enhanced by the everyday milieu frequently visible in the background. Yet while these visual aspects may have played a part in the book’s success, interest was sparked mainly by its overall structure and narrative. In fact, contemporary reviews neglected to mention anything about the photographs’ composition. Bricklayer, Fraternity Student, Bohemians: the captions present the people as representatives of a species whose physical features, in the eyes of many viewers, made them types. While an anonymously authored blurb on the dust cover suggested viewers should ignore the captions and focus on the pictures, some reviewers felt appalled by some of the portraits probably because of the suggestion in the captions that the person portrayed represented an identifiable social type.9

It is by associating individual with types that meaning is produced in Sander’s photographs, or more precisely, that the possible meaning of a photograph is linked to received ideas and beliefs, and that these are confirmed or tested. In his introduction to the album Döblin stressed the scientific aspect of this strategy, informing readers that Sander had made observations that no academic endeavour could possibly match.10 Döblin may have hoped that the objectivity of the approach could appeal to anyone. However, positive responses came primarily from the political left, and they did not hesitate to claim Sander’s work for their cause. In his ‘Little History of Photography’, published in a literary magazine in 1931, the cultural critic Walter Benjamin revealed a remarkable inclination for physiognomy. Taking up the observation that Face of Our Time was organised according to scientific methods, he goes further than Döblin in outlining the political potential of physiognomic analysis:

Work like Sander’s could overnight assume unlooked-for topicality. Sudden shifts of power such as are now overdue in our society can make the ability to read facial types a matter of vital importance. Whether one is of the Left or the Right, one will have to get used to being looked at in terms of one’s provenance. And one will have to look at others the same way. Sander’s work is more than a picture book. It is a training manual.11

Where did this concept of the training manual originate, and how serious was Benjamin about its merits? Political admissions were becoming an omnipresent feature of literary writing during the later years of the Weimar Republic, affecting physiognomic theories. Many critics have actually argued that the success of physiognomy during the Weimar period was precipitated by the erosion of social stability and was thus a phenomenon of crisis. No other contemporary commentator on Sander, however, was as explicit as Benjamin, but his views were not the same as the photographer’s. Despite his political sympathies, Sander did not seem to consider Face of Our Time to have had any radical potential.

It is most likely that Benjamin came across the ideas he developed in his 1931 essay in Döblin’s introduction to Face of Our Time. Döblin stated that Sander had gathered material on Germany’s recent history of culture, class and economy from a quasi-scientific perspective. He hinted at the physiognomic features of the social groups represented and discovered the tensions of the times in the visible differences between subjects. While some were deemed to have a modern appearance, meaning that individual features had coalesced into types, Döblin acknowledged that others did maintain traces of individuality. However, he went on to say that they reminded him of literary figures of the Wilhelminian era. By drawing on literary history to explain the impression that individuality made on him, Döblin turned the very idea of individual personality into something artificial or anachronistic. Indeed, Döblin went on to speculate that humankind would cast off individuality altogether: ‘The class structure is undergoing a revolution, the cities have grown enormously, some originals are still there but new types are already developing.’12 He concluded that Sander’s pictures said more about contemporary people than lectures and theories did, a sentiment echoed by the widespread enthusiasm for photography and its role in modern communication, as well as by critics who hailed the coming of an era where pictures would replace written discourse. In short, Döblin seemed convinced that the physiognomic reading of faces was epistemologically relevant to the modern world. All Benjamin did in his appraisal of Sander’s anthology was address this point from a political perspective. And he was not the only critic to do so. In 1929 the writer Ernst Jünger remarked: ‘We need no intricate calculations to grasp the magnitude of the threat we face. A simple physiognomic study, which we can perform at once and at whim in any great city, will suffice.’13 Affinities between this observation and Benjamin’s are evident. In the same passage Jünger made it clear that, just like Döblin, he believed in a trend towards the use of generic types and in the emergence of new expressive features in the city dweller’s face:

We will observe that the face of the modern city dweller bears a double hallmark: fears and dreams […] The extraordinary sameness and typicality of the expression betrays the inexorability of the processes and the decisive factor they all share; these large habitats are preserved like hothouses by glass walls that admit no air. That is why in them, reflection is made so difficult, for the peculiarity of the condition is bound to percolate with every breath.14

Like Döblin, Jünger wrote from the point of view of a cultural critic. His text implies that he opposed urbanisation and felt appalled by the negative impact it had on the people. However, in his theoretical magnum opus The Worker (Der Arbeiter), published in 1932, he gave the diagnosis a different twist: while reiterating the notion that modernity was ushering in a uniformity of types, he argued that this reflected progress. From his slightly altered viewpoint, the new phenotype of de-individualised human existence was the effect of revolutionary tendencies, heralding in the faces of men and women a new type of human being destined for social supremacy.15 Soullessness was a key characteristic in the idea of man he advocated.

However divergent their political convictions, Benjamin and Jünger thus shared a confidence in physiognomy that went beyond the analysis of facial features. Jünger applied physiognomic readings to reportage photography.16 As for Benjamin, it is quite probable that his admiration for Sander was rooted in his more general philosophical practice of uncovering hidden meaning by analysing the surface details of socio-political phenomena. Drawing on the example of Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749–1832), Benjamin associated Sander’s method with a ‘delicate empiricism’, and it is fair to say that he may have recognised his own methodologies in those of the photographer. He even resorted to a paradigmatic physiognomic reading of the poems of Erich Kästner, in Benjamin’s eyes a proponent of New Objectivity and of the political indifference that he believed this artistic tendency expressed. Kästner’s poems, Benjamin argued, correspond to a literary tendency he described as having the ‘face of a quasi-classless sound common sense’, a phrase that reveals the philosopher’s admiration for physiognomy, albeit metaphorically.17 However, in the same text Benjamin explained how the poems might be understood by analysing empirically the appearance of the ruined German middle class: ‘The popularity of these poems is linked to the rise of a stratum which took unconcealed possession of its commercial positions of power and prided itself like none other on the nakedness, the unmasked character, of its economic physiognomy.’18 Although this may seem like another metaphorical reading, in a description of the ‘stratum’ of agents, journalists and staff managers whose interests and ambitions were represented by Kästner, Benjamin gave a sense of what he considered to be the merits of reading facial types:

Who cannot see them – their dreamy baby eyes behind horn-rimmed spectacles, their broad, pale cheeks, their halting voices, their fatalism in gesture and mode of thought? From the beginning, it is to this stratum and to this stratum alone that the poet has something to say; it is this stratum that he flatters, insofar as from dawn to dusk he holds up a mirror less to them than against them. The gaps between his stanzas are the folds of fat in their necks, his rhymes their thick lips, his caesuras dimples in their flesh, his punchlines the pupils in their eyes.19

What is significant about Benjamin’s review is how he invested Kästner’s poems with an anthropomorphic physiognomy while at the same time denunciating the real physiognomies of the newly emerging population of white-collar workers. For Benjamin, works of art could mirror social identities in the same way as facial features, hence his interest in physiognomy and his admiration for Sander’s work.

Other left-wing authors were equally committed to the application of physiognomy in cultural analysis. Siegfried Kracauer, a friend of Benjamin’s, remarked in a 1925 essay how contemporary photography mirrored the waning of meaning in a superficial world that ‘knows neither face nor shape’.20 The philosopher Oswald Spengler’s account of world history in his influential treatise The Decline of the West (Der Untergang des Abendlandes; 1922) is another instance of the trust then placed in links between surface phenomena and supposedly deeper-lying truths or identities, and of the refutation of causality in favour of ‘an immediate vision of pure becoming and self-shaping’.21 For Spengler, physiognomy was part and parcel of the new science of historiography, and it is likely that Sander admired Spengler a great deal. 22 Although he was generally reluctant to talk about theoretical questions, Sander took advantage of a radio lecture in 1931 to express his interest in physiognomy, saying that ‘all things that happen have their appearance, or face’.23 It is very likely that he was echoing Spengler in this remark. In the same lecture Sander discussed his own nascent visual archive of German people, explaining that he wanted to render the people’s physiognomy by photographic means alone. This claim was obviously meant to differentiate his own approach from portrait photography as practised by artistically ambitious studio photographers, many of whom still worked in the painterly tradition. Sander also made it clear, however, that physiognomic judgment was a skill he considered to be indispensable for photography. To produce an eloquent picture of the time, an understanding of physiognomy was essential, without which it would be impossible to identify the types needed to represent the nation. This notion of ‘type’ was central to physiognomic thinking of the time. Sometimes it came close to a Platonic idea, while at others it was associated with standardised mass production, and was thought to evoke de-individualised life in a mass society.24 In Sander’s work and in other photographic compendiums, however, the notion of the ‘type’ was intended to guarantee a link between history, the individual, and the group.

Benjamin believed that people lost the integrity of their identity as capitalism came of age, and claimed that in this process the human face lost the aura to which early photography had been the last witness.25 His analysis on Face of Our Time is informed by this alleged decline of the bourgeois individual. In the slightly uneven argument of ‘Little History of Photography’ Benjamin claimed that the human face appeared ‘with new and immeasurable significance’ in contemporary Russian films without, however, becoming portraits in the traditional sense.26 Yet rather than explaining what was significant about this face with reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s and Vsevolod Pudovkin’s feature films, Benjamin instead pointed his readers to Sander’s portraits. Despite his argument being saturated with quotations that make it difficult to follow, what can be ascertained is that in his view Face of Our Time embodied the loss of the bourgeois private sphere at a time when the pretensions of traditional bourgeois portraiture were waning. For Benjamin, social collectivity as represented by Sander’s book – and, of course, by Soviet films that featured the popular masses – had become the only way to reappraise what was left of the individual. In an earlier text, Benjamin drew on the same features of Soviet cinema when challenging a conservative critique of Eisenstein’s 1925 film Battleship Potemkin. Oskar A.H. Schmitz had complained about the director’s stereotyped views of people, categorised according to social status, profession, and age. Benjamin in turn defended what he considered to be a critical tactic of Russian film: ‘There is nothing feebler than all the talk of “individual cases” […] It is well known that many facts gain their meaning, their relief, only when they are put in context. These are the facts with which the field of statistics concerns itself.’27 In Benjamin’s view, Face of Our Time was evidently another example of how ‘the field of statistics’ applied to art.

Writer Kurt Tucholsky was enthusiastic about Face of Our Time for the same reason. Indeed, he was no less convinced than Benjamin that pictures like Sander’s could be used as visual aids in the political struggles of their time. In his review of the photobook, Tucholsky recommended it publicly to his friend George Grosz, arguing that the artist would be able to learn from it what a contemporary industrial magnate really looked like.28 The review also reveals how studiously Tucholsky had read Döblin’s preface to Sander’s book in that it noted that Sander did not photograph people but types. In other words, he photographed people as they are defined by their rank, profession, place of residence, class and caste, to an extent that superseded any differentiation between the individual and the group. It is not clear how much Sander appreciated these arguments. Yet it is possible that his political sympathies lay with the circle of Marxist constructivist artists he befriended in his hometown, known as the Cologne Progressives. He advertised his studio in their journal a to z (a bis z), and input from members of the circle seems to have lay behind Sander’s decision to form an archive from the commercial portrait photographs he had been producing for many years. Typification was a common feature of the Progressives’ paintings, and while they claimed that photography was assuming the mimetic role painting once played, allowing the latter to become abstract, to some extent their intentions seemed to accord with Sander’s own ambitions. In a proposal for a monument to commemorate either the Reich president Friedrich Ebert or his successor Paul von Hindenburg, Progressive painter Heinrich Hoerle considered that the lines signifying a walrus moustache might equally indicate the bloated neck wrinkles typical of the German bourgeoisie, enabling the monument to represent this entire class.29 The Progressives evidently saw Sander’s photographic portraits as monuments to be read in a similar way. It is true that they were not entirely satisfied with his results. In his review of Face of Our Time in a to z, Franz W. Seiwert suggested that Sander should aim for a ‘more acute and clearer sociological formulation’ and that biographical facts should be the source of a structure modelled plainly on class ties.30 Some scholars have argued that the title of Sander’s book was actually put forward by members of the Cologne Progressives. In 1921 Seiwert published Seven Faces of the Time (Sieben Antlitze der Zeit), and a series of prints by group member Gerd Arntz is called Twelve Houses of the Time (12 Häuser der Zeit).31 However, the quest for the true face of the time was too widespread for Sander’s overall project to be traced back to one particular source. The same search was conducted everywhere in Weimar culture, and Sander was not the only photographer to participate in it.

In that he took full-length portraits, emphasised natural lighting and exploited atmospheric backgrounds, Sander was further removed aesthetically from contemporary artistic currents than any of the other photographers portraying the physiognomy of the era. While it is true that the carefully-pondered formal arrangement of Lendvai-Dircksen’s photographs reveals how much she was indebted to the pictorialism that was fashionable when she began her career, more often than not she preferred to present her models in modern close-ups. Modern, that is, according to the tenets of New Objectivity, which favoured a direct and isolationist approach to people and things. Lendvai-Dircksen increasingly focused her pictures on the head of the sitter, trying to render every textural detail of the faces. It appears that she worked on her own archival portrait project from or shortly after 1910. In 1927 many of her photographs were exhibited in public and she was awarded a national prize. The public response to Face of the German People, first published in 1932, was even greater.32 In her introduction to the book Lendvai-Dircksen argued that the peasant’s face represented traditional values, and she juxtaposed this allegedly more authentic form of life against those of the alienated, modern urban world. The peasant, she wrote with a strange mix of historical and sociological arguments, preserved a deeper physiognomic expression than the city dweller: ‘Nature prevails in the face of the unconscious, typical individual, and it is only when mind emerges that the human face becomes radically different. It begins to lose its certainty […] Add an arbitrary element of artificial, externally imposed lifestyle, and expression becomes a mask devoid of authenticity and essence.’33 Here again the ‘typical’ was given primary importance; it saved people from the threat of superficiality.

In a similar way to Jünger, and indeed to the majority of conservative cultural criticism in Weimar Germany, Lendvai-Dircksen identified the metropolis with degeneration. She believed that urban existence, and the dubious accomplishments of modern civilisation imposed unrest on people. ‘One could probably say’, she remarked, ‘the city dweller has the tragic face of our age. It is no longer and not yet.’34 In contrast, the Volksmensch, or man of the folk, had ‘physiognomy’ according to her, that is, an outer appearance that mirrored essential features of an unalienated existence in tune with his living environment. ‘The atmosphere is decisive’, she wrote, ‘and indeed exerts real power. Although this same suggestive power of the milieu also emanates from the city, the urban neighbourhood, every building, every family in the city, it does so with considerably less intensity, as the conditions of life are much looser, much more individual.’35 Lendvai-Dircksen continued her portrait project on the German people – and during the Second World War on ‘the Germanic’ face – with considerable success. With this in mind, it is fair to say that she did not bother her readers with racial concepts in her first book. In fact, she insisted that her emphasis on physiognomy should not be mixed up with biological concepts, heralding as she did the communal aspects of Volkstum, a tricky term that resides somewhere between ‘people’, ‘collective’ or ‘cultural identity’, and ‘folklore’. After 1933 she was keen to associate her work with Nazi racial politics, but before their seize of power she found benevolent readers and viewers among a much less clear-cut audience of conservatives critical of the superficiality of modern communications and consumerist culture at large. They did not even have to be outright conservatives. Kracauer and the writer Joseph Roth, a friend of Benjamin’s and usually associated with the political left, were among the critics of modernity who felt that urban mass culture buried true meaning behind the slick and empty surfaces of popular entertainment.

This shared mistrust in contemporary urban life led to admiration of what contemporary people considered the ‘authentic face’. Citing photographers who opposed the ‘universal levelling of the face’, leftist writer Axel Eggebrecht grouped Sander and Lendvai-Dircksen together, saying that they were both ‘inviolable people in every sense’.36 For Eggebrecht it seemed that there was no distinction between the two photographers’ artistic and moral integrity. Just as Kracauer had written in 1926, and Benjamin in his ‘Little History of Photography’, Eggebrecht regretted that there was not much for photography to conserve. Rather than blaming the technology, however, he suggested that the subjects were to blame, arguing that people, buildings, objects and landscapes assumed a diffuse, indifferent appearance after having been photographed incessantly. Not only were faces blurred but the contours of the very personality behind the skin were worn down in the process. ‘The voracity of the lens’, he argued, ‘is equal to the self-consuming restlessness and inner uncertainty of man.’37 Judging from this passage, Eggebrecht would have agreed with Döblin, Lendvai-Dircksen and Jünger, no matter how much they differed in so many other respects. He also shared Benjamin’s and Kracauer’s impression that the people who sat for the pioneer portraitists Daguerre, Nadar and Hill had faces photographers would no longer come across in his own day, hence the urgency of contemporary archival projects:

If the best among them seek all the more fervently to find order in the chaos of faces, all the more ardently to discover particular features in the pulp of mouths and cheeks, then in the painful awareness that all originality, all individuality is withering away. Perhaps portrait photography as a documentary art was only feasible in the early bourgeois era and must now inevitably die too.38

Formal differences between Sander’s and Lendvai-Dircksen’s photographs do not seem to have worried Eggebrecht. His emphasis on physiognomy echoes Döblin’s and Benjamin’s texts, and in their neglect of aesthetic particularities they are all alike. In another essay Eggebrecht compared Sander and Retzlaff. He started with a reference to ways in which contemporary Russian films celebrated a new humankind, and to the amazing physiognomies seen in them. Yet far from sharing the widespread view that this was the only place where interesting faces could still be found, he went on to assert that German photographers had achieved a similar variety of expression in their work:

If we consider, for example, the fifty-six heads in the volume Men at Work [Menschen am Werk], taken by the Düsseldorf photographer Erich Retzlaff, we will encounter a powerful, gripping monograph about the proletarian face of a kind, unfortunately, that no German film about the working classes has ever managed to portray. And much the same can be said of the second collection by the same photographer, which gathers heads of peasants and country dwellers under the title Earthbound People [Die von der Scholle]. A German pendant to the films ‘Earth’ and ‘The General Line’. In the nature of his views, in his forceful, fanatical concern for proximity and clarity, Retzlaff draws very close, incidentally, to the great, ground-breaking work of August Sander.39

With hindsight it is difficult to imagine that the two photographers would have approved of this comparison. ‘Proximity’, for example, was not something Sander sought in his work. However, Eggebrecht’s comparison is revealing in that it implies that contemporary viewers thought Sander and Retzlaff shared the same mission.

Retzlaff was a self-taught photographer who started to work from his own Düsseldorf studio in 1927. In the years that followed he compiled material for The Face of Old Age (Das Antlitz des Alters), a collection of photographs published in 1930.40 Although they can be considered portraits, Retzlaff was only interested in the collective identity of the group as the subjects advanced in years. His pictures are in fact physiognomic studies in expressivity. Much the same is true of the portrait collections he published shortly thereafter under the series title German People. Two volumes from this series present pictures of industrial workers, Men at Work (Menschen am Werk, 1931), and peasants, Earthbound People (Die von der Scholle, 1931), respectively. It is not clear if Retzlaff intended to publish more volumes in the series, yet from the subjects of these volumes it is obvious that identity politics had become one of the photographer’s central concerns.

Erich Retzlaff Blast Furnace Worker c.1930


Most of the portraits in Retzlaff’s books follow the tenets of New Objectivity by featuring dramatic cropping, close-up views, sharp focuses and, as is especially striking in his picture of a blast furnace worker covered with beads of sweat, special attention to surface details (fig.3). His subjects more often than not sport a determined gaze, which was probably supposed to echo a mental strength that was deemed to be particular to rural or industrial collectives. For Men at Work, poet Heinrich Lersch wrote an essay where issues also raised by Jünger in The Worker were discussed: the life of the industrial worker was presented as a new international phenomenon and the driving force in a new communitarianism. According to Lersch, the workers’ collective physiognomy was increasingly moulded by their striving for economic and spiritual hegemony over the world. He even proposed that the operation of industrial machinery strained particular facial features and hence had a bearing on a worker’s physiognomy. Yet he argued that popular quests for ‘the modern face’ were a waste of time, be it the ‘type of the time’ advertised by fashionable photographers or ‘the worker’s face’ presented in films and illustrated magazines.41 Lersch may have had in mind Lerski’s frequently exhibited and reproduced photographs of unknown workers. It is not entirely clear why he rated Retzlaff’s pictures higher than these. He insisted, however, that Retzlaff took his pictures without the subjects’ knowledge, thus managing to guarantee an authentic expression. Lersch also insisted that for a face to be authentic it had to be visibly rooted in the ‘people’. However he did not explain what he meant by ‘the people’, let alone the German people.

The portraits in Lerski’s Everyday Heads show unemployed workers whom the photographer met at a Berlin job centre where he hired them to sit for him. Old Working Woman from Germany 1928–31 is a close-up shot of a woman’s face, eyes down and mouth shut as though she is quietly contemplating something outside of the picture’s frame (fig.4). It is impossible to tell whether this meditative look, a common feature of his portraits, was suggested by Lerski but it is evident that he was in control of nearly every aspect of his pictures. An experienced movie cameraman, he used artificial light reflected by mirrors and screens to give his models an aura and monumentality that people would be familiar with from expressionist feature films. Oblique angles, in line with modernist sensibilities, helped to reinforce the impression of grandeur. He also cropped the images and introduced extra screens so as to eliminate the space around his models heads, and any details from what remained of the background. This also served on occasions to compromise the integrity of the subject’s face though, in other cases, he preferred to blur the contours of the face using strong shadows, as can be seen in Beggar from Saxony 1928–31 (fig.5). The results produced a general notion of everyday people rather than an endorsement of individuality as praised in traditional portraiture. Like Sander and Retzlaff, Lerski only gave the individuals’ professions in the captions, and was keen not to exemplify their class affiliation or social rank. The pictures provide no information about either, focusing instead on the face. In this way Lerski enhanced the common human dignity normally ignored in ‘everyday’ faces, and more especially in those humiliated by unemployment during the post-1929 economic crisis.42 Lersch, who did not try to disguise his hostility towards what he considered artificially posed types, may have felt challenged by the twist that Lerski gave to physiognomy by altering the natural appearance of his subjects’ faces. Lendvai-Dircksen was to join him in explicitly criticising Lerski, who had emigrated to Palestine when the Nazi’s seized power. Written in 1935, Lendvai-Dircksen’s passage on her colleague is an obsessive phantasy on the hegemonic authority of the photographer’s voice that draws comparisons between Lerski’s studio and a torture chamber: according to her, he made his models wait several hours to wear them out, then drugged them with coffee or cigarettes to bend them to his will before finally taking his pictures.43 Where did this overtly hostile resentment come from? The stripping of specified identity is what must have upset Lendvai-Dircksen, who continued to romanticise regional German collectives in her own photographs. It is easy to imagine that Sander’s approach was also unacceptable for her, distinct as it was from Lerski’s. It is not known what she thought, but it is telling that another right-wing critic, Franz Evers, dismissed Face of Our Time as a ‘document of anarchy’, leading the author to compare it unfavourably with a ‘collection of truly royal contemporary peasants’ he knew was being prepared at the time.44 Evers’s argument suggests that he simply did not like unheroic faces. Sander’s book’s systematic structure and narrative was obviously not considered relevant by all commentators. In his methodical analysis of Sander’s archival parameters, critic George Baker mentions that bourgeois stratification was under attack at the time from both the rationalisation of modern industrial life and the collectivisation of social life, and that Sander’s work, replicating the very stratification it wanted to attack politically, was caught up within a logic of the ‘between’.45 Sander’s project, however, was not perceptibly ‘critical’ in the way Baker implies, nor did it necessarily support the view that Weimar society’s structure was ‘organic’. Contemporaries both loved and hated Sander’s very lack of an organic approach. If anything, it was its acknowledged impartiality that infuriated Evers: it was too vast, too encyclopaedic to be of any help to intellectuals longing for an endorsement of their folkloric or racial bias.

Retzlaff’s Earthbound People illustrated the alternative view and was probably the forthcoming book that Evers was advertising. This publication contained an introductory essay by Hans Friedrich Blunck, whose argument echoed so many other sources in that it heralded one particular group of people as representative of authentic existence in an alienated world. Drawing on the general assumptions that could also be found in Döblin’s essay on Sander and which were behind so many attacks on modern urban life, Blunck argued that the facial expression of Retzlaff’s peasants justified optimism about the future:

They say that amid the din of the city and in the struggle to preserve European civilisation people’s faces are beginning to resemble one another today, that their youth and old age are, as it were, embossed in advance, and that the face of today shows no trace of inner freedom. Something mask-like, it is claimed, has been appended to the man of our day – he is no longer replenished from the pure image of his soul, because he has lost his awareness of his status, nay, his mission of standing between God and Earth. I think anyone contemplating the image of the German peasant and rural artisan need have no fear of that.46

Some of the ideas in this passage resonate with Lendvai-Dircksen’s comments. While anti-modernism and anti-urbanism obviously dominate, racial ideology is absent, and this is probably what allowed Eggebrecht to be so enthusiastic in his review. It was sociology that he found in the book. By asserting that Retzlaff aimed to make the human face an ‘embodiment of a country, a social rank, an era’, he showed that the meaning contemporary viewers found in the pictures was hardly dependent on composition and style.47 That is not to say there are no stylistic and compositional differences. In aesthetic terms the only evident similarity between Sander and Retzlaff, and Lendvai-Dircksen for that matter, lies in the photographers’ realist mode where nothing is apparently done to alter the descriptive power of the shot. The text on the cover of Earthbound People told the reader that Retzlaff resisted artistic gimmicks and manipulations that would have aligned him with either pictorial or avant-garde photography, placing him on the same middle ground occupied by Sander with his allegedly objective approach. Apart from artistic qualities, however, there is more to say about what Retzlaff’s and Sander’s books, both so appreciated by Eggebrecht, had in common.

Probably much to the annoyance of the Cologne Progressives, Sander based his archival project on an intellectual concept imbued with metahistorical cultural values. It has often been remarked that the figure of the peasant plays a key role in the structure of his visual anthology.48 The only close-up portrait in Face of Our Time is devoted to a shepherd, and as late as 1954 Sander explained that rural life was a mass of general human features, with all other social types deriving from this prototype.49 This way of thinking has more in common with the essays in Lendvai-Dircksen’s and Retzlaff’s books than it does with Döblin’s commentary in Face of Our Time. Sander seems to have resorted to the primordial peasant’s face to find a range of authentic expressions surviving, albeit less straightforwardly, in other social types. He found the ‘man of the soil’ in his peasant faces and ‘the philosopher’, the ‘fighter or revolutionary’ and the ‘sage’. Spengler’s views may have propelled Sander’s thinking on the peasant’s metahistorical existence, but he may also have been aware of the philosopher Rudolf Kassner, whose writings provided another example of the widespread view that the face of modern man suffered from his loss of ties with traditional social communities and ranks.50 Unlike Döblin, Kassner also thought that rather than being formed by a social milieu, every face was originally modelled on the character type of its individual owner. With or without detailed insight into Spengler’s and Kassner’s arguments, Sander’s thinking was ideologically quite conservative in this respect, and begs the question how much he shared with his artistic competitors.

In a 1929 edition of Scherl’s Magazin a portrait by Lerski of the Swedish actor Gösta Ekman was captioned ‘the blond Germanic type is exemplified with statuesque clarity’.51 Although there is no hint that Lerski had any personal interest in advertising Germanic types and stereotypes at the time, only two years later he was planning a book on Jewish archetypes, hoping they might offer an insight into the roots of his race’s subsequent facial characteristics.52 It is also clear that he hoped character types would emerge from the individual portraits he took in Berlin in the late 1920s. Indeed, Lerski tried to salvage the dignity of the personality from alienation in the modern world no less than Retzlaff and Lendvai-Dircksen, despite their extreme political differences. The same holds true for Sander, though only to a certain extent. The overall concept of his project suggests that he expected to find degeneration in the modern individual physiognomy.53 At the same time, the structure of his project is very different from the other photographers’ books. Unlike Lendvai-Dircksen and Retzlaff he did not seek the ‘face of the time’ in the face alone. Physiognomy as practised by Sander included the total habitus of a person, which assumed its meaning in a comparative reading of different groups. To begin with, actual faces do not dominate the individual pictures that are supposed to represent, if seen together, the ‘face of the time’. Moreover, Sander intended to include architectural and environmental motifs in his portfolios, that is, details of his models’ social habitat.54 This was of course not obvious from his 1929 publication and may only have been instigated by Seiwert’s criticism. Even without these details, however, contemporary readers felt exposed to something new: a visual discourse aiming at representing totality. Not, of course, a totality synonymous with ‘essence’ and confirmed by the visual redundancy found in the work of Lerski, Lendvai-Dircksen and Retzlaff, but a totality implied by the very idea of the all-encompassing, ever-growing archive.

The authoritative power of the archive has been commented upon frequently in critiques of Sander’s project, but should not be overemphasised. By their very nature archives tend to be all-inclusive. Although it is true that Sander believed in the notion of the ‘type’, his ambition to represent the totality of his time thwarted typification. By including in most instances only one representative of the social types he covered, he did as much to undermine the notion of the type as his captions may have done to denigrate, in the eyes of contemporary viewers, the ideal of the individual personality. Tucholsky protested that architect Hans Poelzig, who was represented incognito in Sander’s book, was not just ‘the architect’ but a unique ‘original’, that is, an individual personality rather than a type.55 Even when seen together with and against all the other individuals, this sitter’s name – his most important marker of individuality – had not become irrelevant in Tucholsky’s eyes. It is unlikely that Tucholsky would have made this remark if other architects, or more images of Poelzig, had been included in the book. He picked out only one individual. Yet in the most recent critical edition of Sander’s unfinished People of the Twentieth Century, many names have been attributed to sitters whose pictures were originally published with no captioned reference to their individuality. Indeed, it might be argued that to respect a model requires their individual identity to be reinstated. Readers of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida will remember the author’s discussion of a picture showing an unidentified boy about whose fate he contemplates.56 Benjamin had earlier raised similar questions, identifying ‘something’ in old portrait photographs that prompted an ‘unruly desire’ to know the sitters’ names.57 From his overall argument, and his ruminations on the loss of individual aura more specifically, readers are bound to conclude that this desire is the exclusive effect of images taken by early photographers. It would seem that Sander’s pictures have acquired a similar status now. But it is more important to see that Sander, who did not work out his types in a process of endless repetition, prepared the ground structurally for this re-evaluation of his subjects.

Benjamin must have found it difficult to come to terms with Sander’s book for in it he found a social perspective on people but not the political promise that characters in Russian films acted out. In fact, Face of Our Time denied the traditional portrait more than any of the other volumes discussed here. For Eggebrecht, Sander was only one of several photographers worthy of praise for their work in re-instating threatened human identity, no matter how politically disparate they appear today. However, Eggebrecht did not hesitate to single Sander out. In his eyes, Sander was the pinnacle of contemporary German photography: as an exceptionally gifted recorder of the ‘individual-typical’, Sander ‘feels the constant urge to understand man in his group, in the family, in his professional community, in the club, in his cycle of friends’, seeing in every individual the result of social conditions.58 According to Eggebrecht there was no privacy in Sander’s work, and ‘the true reality of the middle European man today is that he does not have a purely private face any more’.59 In this respect Sander could be said to have abandoned the portrait as people knew it, but this was less apparent in the individual pictures than in the overall layout of the book. The poses of the sitters, their distance from the camera and the ways in which the images were cropped were all very traditional, and may have reminded contemporary viewers of nineteenth-century photographs. This accounts for one particularity of his work. Yet the difference between Sander and the other three photographers discussed in this essay is most evident in the varying relevance of typological concepts for the look of their photographs. He may have drawn on the prototype paradigm and on ideas of threatened authenticity, as they all did more or less explicitly, but Sander did not romanticise a compensatory ideal or the expressive force of the face. Lendvai-Dircksen, Retzlaff and Lerski gathered particular physiognomies in order to counter the faceless modern mass. Sander alone aimed at a more abstract portrait of society itself. He may have been doomed to fail, and some of the categories he used to structure the portfolios in his book proved less than helpful in the end. Strangely, however, it was perhaps his over-ambition, on a structural level, and his very conservatism, in formal terms, that account for his work’s longevity.

See also