August Sander and Sentimentality
Jen Graves, who writes for Seattle’s The Stranger and runs Slog, wrote a line in a quick post several weeks ago that really affected me. After an open, loving description of an Alec Soth photograph using her own personal family history, she got defensive, saying, “If you think that's cheesy, let's just say this is also simply a terrific photograph, taken by someone who still believes in the power of an image to (relatively) unselfconsciously depict the world.” There is much to think about in this statement, not in a “Jen Graves on the couch” sort of way but in that this type of defense is often employed in the arts. People quickly backtrack and shy away from using their personal history in descriptions and reaction to artworks, qualifying their statements as if they have uttered a something false.
Let me begin by saying that I believe there is nothing to apologize for, that these reactions are completely valid and if played out to the full extent of their capability, extremely productive. Quick personal reactions usually start as nostalgia and sentimentality, but if you don’t risk nostalgia and sentimentality, you don’t really get anywhere with art.
Recently, I had an experience that has much in common with what happened to Graves. I was at the Getty, intending to go to see the Becher show and once again got caught up in the photographs of August Sander. I say once again because the only time I’ve been to the Met in New York, I spent about two hours with a small Sander exhibition and basically missed the rest.
One can see Sander’s photographs in many different ways. In one interpretation, what takes precedence is the idea of an archive. An archive is basically a collection of items that stand in for historical events – letters, photographs, videos, basically any form of documentation. Sander’s photographs attempt to capture the German people of a certain time period and the collection as a whole becomes an archive – the idea is that the meaning of the event is allowed to circulate within the archive and gets reinterpreted according to how the archive is put to use. The archive resists easy, totalizing readings of an event and therefore, they are handy in subverting restricting universals (if you believe that universals are always restricting – which I don’t).
Partially the archive and what the archive means leads to another way of viewing Sander, as the first of many German photographers like the Bechers and their students that push conceptual ideas forward in their practices rather than relying on a journalistic approach to the photograph. Basically all that means is that the meaning of photography projects as a whole or a set of photographs is put to use to find meaning rather than simply viewed as the container of the essence of an event. To use an example, Sander’s collections of artist photographs are meant to be compared with each other to come up with an idea of a “German Artist” rather than each individual photograph showing an artist “in their essence.”
Another way, and the way I cannot help but view Sander, is a cocktail of the first two interpretations mixed with a deeply personal, partially nostalgic, partially sentimental, partially critical approach. For the typical viewer, I think that if a photograph or archive ever can get someone actually thinking and reflecting on history, the viewer must take it personally. The experience must start with a least a little sentimentality and nostalgia, but the place the experience ends up is a different place, a critical place where one can think about history, interpret history, and hopefully use history as a lesson, a guide for their individual lives (if this is not the purpose of history, history has no point).
I take Sander’s portraits of the German people very personally. My own family left Germany and Austria in various waves between 1870 and 1920. Some stayed in Germany. As far as I can tell, none ever went back. I cannot view Sander’s photos without seeing my own present world fracturing into could have beens and conjecture, into T.S. Eliot’s Rose Garden where all of the possibilities of life collect dust, having the look of roses that are looked at. Would my family have starved during Weimar? Maybe some of us would have been disillusioned students, watching the rise of fascism from the coffee shop and dreaming of Marxism? Would I have been a person that signed on and became a Nazi? I can never know. Each time I encounter Sander, the photos shift and change and dance away like phantasms out of the corner of my eye. I keep going back to Sander now partially because of the sentiment and partially because I am interested in the project, the history, and what it means.
For instance, I dwell on Sander’s Earthbound Farmer, 1910, a farmer with his pate several shades paler than the stony grill he offers to the world. This man was used to wearing a hat and forever in one, only shedding the hat when indoors which is basically bedtime, church and posing for a photograph. Every man used to wear a hat. I thought of Sander’s photographs of businessmen, who are indoors enough to allow hair styles – unlike Farmers, their hair is used to being on view. By comparing the photographs, the habits and interests of the people in the photos, Sander’s world opens up, the world that followed Bismarck, made it through Weimar only to meet the horror of the Nazis. But to be honest, my initial interest in the famer image came from my own family photographs. I see that my great, great grandfather had that pale forehead. The desire to know more about this person in my past aided my entrance into the archive, it was an essential motivating factor – if I was fully detached and just in the world of ideas, I wouldn’t care about this stuff at all.
My encounter with Sander was, all told, very nostalgic, full of fantasy, and overly romantic. However, all that emotional stuff allowed me entrance into Sander’s world and what Sander was doing. The point I am trying to make is that it is valid entrance point, an essential entrance point if someone is to become interested in an archive. Often with archive projects, the viewer has no entrance point. Sometimes the content is too overbearing (like an archive of photos directly depicting Vietnam or the horrors of the Killing Fields). Sometimes, an archive initially feels too much like work (you walk into a gallery with piles of papers, lists, and various rubbish that is supposed to have a meaning but instead of being curious, you just feel tired). An archive is a difficult thing to use in art and too often, they are just impossible and unlikeable.
All I am trying to do here is show the benefits of certain types of personal sentiment in viewing art, that they shouldn’t be apologized for or backtracked from in a conversation. We should be careful how much we police what we consider “sentimentality” – sentimentality is not the enemy, detachment is the enemy.
To close, I want to add this quote from Adam Gopnik from 2004 issue of Influence Magazine, published by the photographer Gil Blank in New York. I love this quote and I think it has something important to say:
“I think in some perverse way that we can benefit, if anything, from more sentimentality and more nostalgia, properly so called – that is, more feeling allowed its own range and prepared to speak for itself. Nostalgia in that way is essentially a vernacular form of history. It’s the common point of our social consciousness. The real enemy of art isn’t sentimentality; it is, and always will be, rhetoric. The fight against the rhetorical insistence on what we ought to say, rather than what we really feel, is as hard, and important, now as it has ever been.”