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.