A passage from Susan Sontag’s groundbreaking book, On Photography haunts me:
A photograph is both a pseudo-presence and a token of absence. Like a wood fire in a room, photographs—especially those of people, of distant landscapes and faraway cities, of the vanished past—are incitements to reverie (p. 16).
This comes close to explaining my fascination with portraits. It is not necessarily the subject’s fame that draws me to these images. In fact, the portraits selected for this essay were chosen because they did not immediately communicate the aura of fame. They weren’t distorted by fame’s messy narrative.
Portraits of contemporary architects are so self-consciously calculated. Like cover art, they are created to communicate certain attitudes, like confidence, knowledge, and power, toward an audience. Both photographer and image-savvy architect-subject are aware of how to manipulate photography to greatest effect.
Portraiture in architecture has thus become celebrity photography. Everyone knows how to behave now, have for decades. When a superficial marketing intent tries to communicate the depth of a person it becomes difficult to trust the resulting image. There is a giant yawn between this premeditated intent and the clichéd pose that obscures the person in the frame.
It was in this way that I rediscovered August Sander (1876 – 1964), the famed German documentary photographer. I was looking for something different, an uncorrupted sort of expression.
Sander used photography to carry out a project he called his “archetype pictures.” Thus, among his portraits of farmers dressed up on Sunday, circus performers, artists and soldiers were a few architects.
Despite being classified as documentary photography, according to Sontag, Sander’s photographs represent “one of the most truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography” (p. 61). Sanders himself didn’t think he was describing the truth of these people so much as dispassionately capturing “social masks” for his grand project. The photographs, though working as evidence of a profession, tell a more complicated story of identity and individuality.
Immediately captivated, I decided to stay with Sander and follow the traces of these photographs. One of the most striking differences between them and their contemporary counterparts is that these were not produced for marketing or public relations. They began as part of a larger project by a photographer who was passionate about building a collection, a record of people in a time of great upheaval, the rise of Nazi Germany. The world would never be the same again. Judging from his photographs, he understood this.
On Friday, Part 2: The Mystery of Dora