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