Saturday, January 28, 2012

“Looking For Any Kind Of Work”

August Sander’s “Unemployed Man”, a photograph taken on a Cologne street corner in 1928.

“Unemployed Man” is one of the most renowned Sander photographs. It captures the subject’s utter hopelessness as well as his essential dignity. From the photograph, the viewer can see that the man appears to be gentle, kind and civilized—and yet the viewer wonders whether the man has acquired such a saintly aura simply because he is a creature beaten down, drained not only of a present but of a future.

Such sight was common in Germany in the 1920s. It was to become more common still after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, an event that affected Germany far more profoundly than the United States. Banks and governments everywhere cut off credit to Germany shortly after the Crash, a move that resulted in chaos and despair on the widest possible scale throughout Germany. The ultimate impact of the credit revocation became apparent little more than three years after the Crash: a totalitarian government was installed in Germany.

Twenty-four years after Sander took his famous photograph in Cologne, Henri Cartier-Bresson snapped one of his most famous photographs in Hamburg.

“Hamburg, Germany: 1952-1953” was one of many scenes Cartier-Bresson captured in December 1952 and January 1953 at or near the main harbor of Hamburg, then and now North Europe’s largest and most important port.

The Cartier-Bresson photograph is even more complicated than the Sander, largely because the viewer is presented with substantial contradictory evidence about the intelligence and character of the subject. There are numerous indications that the young man in the photograph possesses great intelligence, yet there are numerous indications that the young man in the photograph is not intelligent in the least—and, moreover, is a ruffian. This tension is what makes the photograph so powerful.

No matter how deeply one studies the photograph, one cannot decide what sort of person is the young man.

“Looking For Any Kind Of Work” is the signage around the young man’s neck.

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