Wednesday, January 25, 2012

“Menschen Des 20. Jahrhunderts”

The photograph above is iconic in Germany, and well-known in the United States.

The photograph was taken by German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) in the summer of 1914 in the Westerwald, and was part of Sander’s “People Of The 20th Century” project, a project Sanders began in 1911 and continued well into the 1920s.

In Germany, the photograph is known simply as “Young Men”. In the U.S., the photograph is often titled “Three Young Farmers On Their Way To A Dance” or some variant thereof.

I do not understand why the photograph has become iconic. It is, by and large, a pretty unremarkable photograph.

The photograph caught my eye when I saw a high-quality print for the first time at Hamburg’s Museum Of Arts And Crafts in 2006. It is one of few photographs from a large display of German photographs we viewed that I remember vividly more than five years later. Nonetheless, I have not a clue why the photograph somehow became embedded into my brain.

The photograph may be seen as representing the end of an era—everything was to change in August 1914—and yet the photograph has absolutely nothing to do with the forces of history or social change or the coming cataclysm. It depicts three not particularly interesting and not particularly intelligent and not particularly characterful and not particularly appealing young men posed stiffly for the camera on a rural pathway while attired in their Sunday best. To read more into the photograph, including any sweeping historical themes, is not justified.

Someone that appreciates the photograph more than I, New York-based cultural writer David Propson, has written the following of the photograph:

Yet through Sander's camera we also see more. His famous "Young Farmers On The Way To A Dance", their cravats carefully tied and canes in hand, look far more like dandies than men of the earth. There is comedy in the affected seriousness of these youths, whose frames don't quite fit their pretensions. Sander's idiom may have been the individual portrait, but his theme was man in relation to his society.

I remain unconvinced. I do not see Propson’s proposed theme in the photograph.

And yet the photograph continues to stick in my mind.

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