The Indicator: Photographing the Architect, Part 2: The Mystery of Dora

The Indicator: Photographing the Architect, Part 2: The Mystery of Dora

He is so much older than she, isn’t he? You can see they love one another. They are not just sitting together. She is leaning against him, her head against his temple. Though they are looking in different directions, they are as one and inhabiting a private realm of emotion. His gaze regards us but it is she who draws our attention by looking away. It is 1926 and he is content. He seems more at ease posing with Dora than alone. Without her he must clasp his hand together, unsure of how to hold himself.

More after the break.

All I can think when seeing this image is that the photographer, August Sander, must have fallen in love with Dora. This photograph is mesmerizing because of the longing it conveys. He could not bear to have her look into his lens. Again, she is looking away and because of this we do not really know what she looks like. We do not see who she is. She is not ours to behold.

I feel I could easily write a screenplay based on these two photographs. Imagine, the war tearing all of this apart. Everything in the frames gone except for these subjects, themselves forever changed. There are no later photographs of Hans and his wife. I found myself wanting to see more but there are only these two.

I am more intrigued with Dora because history overlooked her. Yet, clearly she had a profound influence on Hans’ state of mind. The architect left some modernist buildings for us to examine (one?). For Dora, there are no traces outside of these two photographs.

The intrigue is also felt because she is looking away from us. Her fingers delicately touching the table seem to indicate that she is about to get up and approach what she is gazing at. And in her look there is longing for what lies beyond the frame. She sits like a schoolgirl.

We know Hans lived in Brazil during the war and then made his way to New York City. But what happened to Dora?

Otto Dix and his wife Martha may have been the early study for Hans and Dora. Here Martha regards us with the confidence of the new woman of the age. She is every bit the equal of Otto, who seems to regard her with great respect, looking to her for strength and direction. She is out in front. His vision seems to be boring through her, penetrating. It is she who holds his attention…and ours. She who calms his ghosts of World War I.

The city they all inhabited together was nearly erased by Allied bombing during the war. The painter stands tall in this city of disappearance and seems to be suspended somehow out in front of it, as if the city were his dream or memory. The city in the background is eerily absent of life. I wonder if this was a timed exposure or just early on a Sunday morning. It appears like a set, a prop for the modern man in his suit, standing with great poise, balance and purpose—like a ghost.

And then again…the phantom city with the same ghost. Photographing disappearance.

Regarded as a leading figure of the Neue Sachlichkeit, this painter’s Cologne works were destroyed by the Nazis as subversive or ignited by the bombing raids. He fled to France in 1936 and settled in Paris. After being held there by the occupying Nazis in 1940 he again fled to Switzerland. In 1949 he returned to his bombed-out city and began painting landscapes.

A Final Note It is astonishing to me that August Sander is not mentioned in the history of architecture. He was canonized within the history of photography, but architecture missed him completely. He is one of the key chroniclers of modernity and modern design, intentionally staging his subjects and backgrounds. His work also had a profound influence on architectural photographers such as Gerrit Engel and the Bechers. He helped transform how cities and people were photographed.

The Indicator

The Indicator

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Cite: Guy Horton. "The Indicator: Photographing the Architect, Part 2: The Mystery of Dora" 10 Dec 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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