Exercise: 1.2 background as context

For this exercise, I examine the work of August Sander in Face of our time, then make a portrait inspired by what I learned from Sander’s work.

First, there should be a reference to the introduction to the book by Afred Döblin, entitled, Faces, Images and their Truth. This presents an opposing view to that expressed by Barthes in his essay, The Blue Guide (see post here). Döblin extolls the virtues of typology in a short paragraph, quoted verbatim here:

But what can we say about an ant heap? There may be some five hundred ants moving across a path, coming from a root, or from a pile of stones, in a fast and quite conspicuous movement. A hundred yards away there is an even larger crowd of them at work. No matter how closely we observe the insects, it is impossible for us to perceive more detail than certain general characteristic of the species, or insignificant differences between individuals. It is absolutely impossible to differentiate between them. And yet there is no doubt, or at least I should imagine so, that here, as with bees, all of the insects recognise each other and can distinguish themselves one from another.

The point Döblin then makes is that this same logic is rarely applied to human beings – they are perhaps to self-obsessed to do so – ‘the fact that, viewed from a certain distance, distinctions vanish; viewed from a certain distance, individuals cease to exist, and only universals persist.’ This perspective is perhaps a healthy social view – encouraging focus on similarities rather than differences. It is so often differences that lead to conflict.

Observations from examining Sanders work are as follows (references refer to the plate numbers in the book referenced):

  • Backgrounds are just that, backgrounds that serve as a backdrop to the subjects.
    Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 20.54.54
    Source: moma.org

    They are indistinct and at most hint at the context of the sitter, for example woodland or a grand house, but they do not receive a visual priority in the photos.

  • The subjects are deliberately placed so they are distinctive from the backgrounds or the background serves to draw the eye towards the subjects.
  • The sitters are posed but appear comfortable and relaxed. Only a few of them smile, most wear neutral expressions.
  • Many of the sitters appear to have formally dressed for their portraits, including a farmer in his ‘Sunday best’ (p1)
  • The majority of the portraits are either half or full body; there are very few head-shots. The hands and what they are doing form an important part of the portraits: for example a locksmith holding a chain of keys, a farmer holding a bible (with his large laboured hands), an industrialist with his hands shaped as a church roof, signifying confidence.
  • Where flash-light is used the flash often appears to be position above and to the left of the sitter (based on catch-light and shadow observation).

For my own portrait, I decide to work with my own pre-teenage son, who having recently been handed down an old iPhone for emergency communication purposes, often switches of communication in preference for a head-phoned world of virtual communication, music, football and political news.

The portrait was shot in his favourite seat and with his younger brother acting as moveable light stand for the flash light. I opted a half-body shot that shows his school uniform, iPhone in hands, and headphones on head – perhaps not the usual portrait a parent would make of their child, preferring them to be free of electronic gadgetry and smiling at the camera.




Sander, A., Döblin, A., Robertson, M., er, A., & Doblin, A. (1995). August Sander: Face of our time: Sixty portraits of twentieth- century Germans. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel Verlag GmbH.

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