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IAP 1 exercise 1.1 historic portrait

The portrait I have selected to study is August Sander’s Young Farmers, which he made in 1914. The first thing that strikes me about this portrait is that on first glance there is actually nothing to suggest that the three young men portrayed in the image are in fact farmers. Indeed, in their smart suits and Homburg hats and sporting their polished canes, they appear to represent the epitome of urban existence. They are well groomed – all are clean-shaven and have neatly trimmed hair; their shirt collars are stiff and white, their shoes shiny and free of farmyard mud. They engage with the camera in a confident and urbane manner.

One of the three stands apart from the others and has a slightly more raffish air – his gaze is a little more knowing and more questioning than that of the other two, and he holds a cigarette between his lips in the style of a habitual smoker. His hat is tipped back on his head, in contrast to those of his companions with their brows slightly down at the front in a manner that seems more modest.

Likewise his cane seems to be longer and shinier than his companions’, which may be why it touches the ground at an angle and his arm is bent, while their arms and canes are straight and upright – differences that have significant metaphorical implications. Whereas his companions might plausibly be going off to church in their Sunday best, the man with the longer cane looks more likely to be on his way to a social event of a less virtuous character: a poker game, perhaps. He could almost be a prototype template for the kind of character Humphrey Bogart made his own two to three decades later.

The left hand of the middle subject offers further ambiguity on the urban/rural question, its apparently expressive mannerism suggesting that its owner may have artistic cultural tendencies, while the dark shadows between fingers and palm could be interpreted as a clump of earth.

Other than this, only the soft-focus rural landscape in the background and the dirt road the trio stand on offer any suggestion of a non-urban context. But it’s not even clear whether this is farming land – there is no crop in sight and it looks more like heath or marshland. Neither is there any enclosure device such as a fence.

This apparent mismatch between the image’s title and its contents surprised me at first, because I had come to think of Sander’s portraits as archetypes, each subject representing a particular profession or lifestyle. Once I noticed the incongruity between this trio and their title, however, I began to see that in a considerable proportion of Sander’s images the title is actually the only clue to the subject’s occupation, and that our belief in his portraits as archetypes is generated by the titles combined with the directness with which his subjects present themselves. This directness leads us to take Sander’s titles at face value, to trust them even where there is nothing in the image to substantiate them.

August Sander (1914): Young Farmers

IAP 1 exercise 1.2 background as context

I was surprised by some of the observations I made while studying Sander’s portraits, as before looking at them in close detail I had the impression that they were more consistent in format than they actually are. In fact there are a number of elements, including the image backgrounds, that vary considerably across the project.

What is consistent, however, is the objective and even-handed way he treats every subject, regardless of social standing or any other feature. Each subject is presented, and presents themself, in an emotionally neutral manner, and this is what gives the series its immense power and enduring relevance. It makes each individual portrait simultaneously a detached study of a individual person and a representative – even an archetype – of the category into which Sanders has placed them, eg farmer’s child, Nazi officer, political prisoner, secretary etc. Collectively this gives the images the impression of an almost scientific study of a society at a point in time, which of course is precisely what Sanders intended.

Also consistent throughout the series is that every portrait is carefully balanced in composition. I intuitively felt this to be the case and decided to place a 3 x 3 grid across a random selection of a dozen to reveal their structure more explicitly. The results (reproduced below) illustrate the strength of the images’ balance and symmetry and their consistency in this respect.

Beyond this there is much that varies from photo to photo. Some portraits are of individual people, others are couples or pairs and others again are groupings of varying numbers. Most, but not all, subjects look directly at the camera, but it is very clear that even those not facing the camera are consciously presenting themselves to its gaze.

Some of the images are head-and-shoulders portraits, while others are full-body. Some have blurred backgrounds and others include sharp detail. Every face, however, is in sharp focus. Many of the backgrounds are neutral and studio-like, while others – sharp or blurred – provide contextual material for the portrait’s subject or subjects.

IAP 1 exercise 1.3 portraiture typology

The t-junction

This typology consists of people seen from the window of my flat, and includes the following types:
– People at work
– People with dogs
– People with folders
– People with phones
– People with footballs
– People getting in or out of cars
– People disposing of garbage
– People without props

Process

I have recently been playing around with taking pictures of people through the window of my flat, which overlooks a t-junction. My initial intention was to investigate the kind of pictures I can make of people when they aren’t aware of being photographed. I was hoping to capture fly-on-the wall type images that seem to offer a window into the personal world of the subject in a similar way to those made in the late 1930s by Walker Evans on the New York subway and by Peter Funch some 70 years later at a New York street junction.

The more pictures I took, the more I noticed different activity-based categories – or types – starting to emerge. I also noticed that organising the images into a typology seemed to highlight both the characteristics that define each category/type and also the similarities running across the different types that bind them together as a typology.

Reflection

Obviously I would need a lot more images to really flesh out the various categories/types, and new ones would certainly emerge – people on bicycles, for example. And if I were going to pursue this idea I would need to start again and use a more powerful zoom lens so that the resulting images would have a better focus and resolution. But I feel there is the basis of a typology concept here, and the exercise has prompted me to think about these images in a different way. It has also prompted me subsequently to explore other projects that use fly-on-the-wall techniques, and in the process I have come across Hans Eijkelboom’s book People of the Twenty-First Century, which clearly demonstrates the potential for a typology like the one I created and shows the way its impact increases exponentially with the number of entries.

References and resources

Eijkelboom, H. (2014) People of the Twenty-First Century. London: Phaidon.

IAP 1 exercise 1.4 archival intervention

A chronotype series documenting the relationship between me and my sisters from 1962 to 2017, curated from my family archive.

When we were growing up I never thought about whether my sisters and I were close or whether we cared much for each other. I was two and a half years older than Jane and nearly four years older than Sarah, and was very much the older sister, left in charge while our parents were out at parties or the officers’ mess. Parties were a big part of army life in the 1960s, and my father was repeatedly elected PMC (President of the Mess Committee), which effectively made him the host of mess events. There were also a lot of parties in our cellar, which my father converted into a party den with a fully stocked bar and wallpaper made from pages of Playboy magazine.

I recall feeling protective towards and responsible for my siblings, but I also considered them a bit of a nuisance at times, and don’t know how I’d have responded if anyone had asked me at the time whether I loved them. It’s not a question anyone ever asked, nor one I recall ever asking myself. But now when I look at these pictures I see that our relationship was actually very special, with an unquestioning mutual acceptance. Perhaps that’s what love really is.

My father was a keen photographer and took the first six of these photos, and possibly also the seventh. He died of leukaemia in 2015, but I only saw him a handful of times after my parents split up in the early 1980s and he started a new family. When he was dying, Jane scanned hundreds of his old slides and prints, and would show him a few every time she visited him in hospital. Towards the end he was permanently unresponsive, but Jane reported that he sometimes made a small sign of acknowledgement when she showed him one of the images. After he died she forwarded the scans she’d made to myself, Sarah and our brother Mark, and this is the archive from which I’ve curated this selection. It was a deeply moving experience to encounter my personal history in this form, even though I already had clear and strong memories of the places and people in the images, and even of many of the images themselves, as we’d seen them as slideshows at home.

There’s a big gap in the sequence between the seventh photo, taken in 1976 or 1977, and the eighth, taken in 2017. We did see each other from time to time in that 40-year period, but not very often. These were the years when we dispersed to go to university and ended up living a long way away from each other. While Jane and Sarah got married and had children, I lived in squats and co-ops in London and partied extensively. We met up occasionally but increasingly rarely. Often a year or two would go by without me making contact with or hearing from either of them.

The decades slipped by, their children grew up and left home and my partying eventually gave way to a healthier lifestyle. Then out of the blue on the last day of 2016 my partner of 25 years dumped me, and I found myself alone in a town I had no connection with. I emailed my sisters to tell them of my change in circumstance, and the three of us set up a whatsapp group. We’ve been in close contact ever since, and I don’t know how I would have got through 2017 without them. The final photo in this series was taken by one of my nieces when we all got together in August 2017.

When I look back at these photos now, I see the thread of continuity running through our lives. Although the series doesn’t have the consistent format and unbroken continuity of Nicholas Nixon’s study of the Brown sisters, the impact is not dissimilar in the way it tracks the relationship between us. I also see how much the three of us have made each other the people that we still are today. And I see what a blessing it is to have sisters.