wilks, 3

 

In the 1920s, Neue Sachlichkeit was Germany’s intellectual response to its vast socioeconomic problems following the devastating First World War. Artists, writers, and musicians of the time all contributed to the movement, for they were utterly frustrated with abstract distortions of the world. The photographer August Sander stood among these men and women, documenting the actual lifestyles of Germans post-WWI. To him, a photograph could either be a curse or a blessing. If there were alterations of any kind to the setting or subject matter, then the picture was a failure. Therefore, his photographs were quite matter-of-fact and tended to have a documentarian quality to them. Although a majority of his originals were destroyed by the Nazis in the next decade, Sander’s legacy persists through the snapshotted faces of his contemporaries. One of his more obscure works is of a one-legged, one-eyed man supported by crutches and holding a barrel organ in a park. The title, date, and location are unknown, yet the photo represents a plethora of ideas Sander desired his photos to convey. By photographing an anonymous man whose past is unidentified, August Sander achieved the epitome of New Objectivity values.

Painters of art movements are inevitably more famous than photographers. New Objectivity is no exception. Otto Dix is far more well-known than August Sander. While their medium is different, it must be understood that they shared a like purpose: uniting a broken country. Sander perhaps was more successful in that endeavor, as he objectively took pictures of real people in natural environments. An artist could never achieve what a camera can. For example, if Dix saw the barrel-organ player and painted his portrait, he would never have been able to be one hundred percent accurate in his depiction. Painters of the Neue Sachlichkeit movement knew this, thus their goal in painting was not to be incredibly accurate but to paint hyper-realistically in an objective manner. As a photographer, Sander’s aim differed—rather than shoot pictures in studios or use props or change lighting, he simply took pictures. In this way, photography was the purest form of New Objectivity.

Following this idea, what can be dubbed “The Barrel-Organ Player”[1] is a photograph of a man who remains anonymous in multiple ways. What is known of him is he is deprived of a limb, an eye, and wealth. The genius of Sander, however, lies in the subtle, ungiven details. Is the man also deprived of a stable job, sanity, family, religion, and spirit? How does he have the will to play music? The questions go on and will remain unanswered forever. This fact does not mean Sander is inept as a photographer; rather, he successfully relates this man to every viewer of any background. And though unintended, the photo’s lost title and date only serve to make it more timeless in its appeal to individuals of the masses.

Like his entire collection of photos during the World War era, this picture is black and white. It is a nod to traditional photography the same way New Objectivity paintings were a nod to Renaissance styles. If Sander had opted for color in a picture such as this, then it would have decreased in its universal effect. The pathway, for instance, is either of stone or brick, and it is of an unknown color. If Sander had used color in this photograph and the pathway had been blue, then most people would focus their attention on that peculiar color. The same applies for the man—it is not important what color his instrument is or what color his rough attire is. All that matters is the objectiveness of the photo; color would render it subjective. Thus, Sander’s choice of black and white highlights the purity of a natural picture.

Although it is unknown whether this photo was a part of Sander’s “Last People” collection of social outcasts, it is not important. Labels are unnecessary as the photo speaks for itself. Here is an experienced man whose face tells a story of tragedy and perseverance, emphasized by both his wrinkles and scars. His right arm, though most likely intact as the bottom of a crutch can be seen, is not in the photo. This missing right limb parallels his missing right leg. His eyes are dark, and it is implied that he is blind in his left eye as there seems to be a black patch over it. This is not a certainty, though, nor should it be. His body is ambiguous and objectively left up to the viewer for interpretation.

Appearance is not the only thing someone sees in this photo. There is also an ambiguity about the man’s background and emotions. He looks unhappy, alone, and discarded, as he leans on his crutches off the path on a little area of dirt. The musician accepts his station in life as an outcast, yet he somehow still plays music for the enjoyment of others. The object that is most likely his white tip jar atop his barrel organ is small. He is realistic and does not expect more than he should. Despite all these tragic elements of his life, there remains a fire in his soul that urges him to rise in the morning, even if it is only on one leg and seeing the dawn of a new day with a single eye. Whether he is a war vet or a fire victim is beside the point; he is a survivor and will continue to be until his death. Sander’s contemporary Germans would have seen these characteristics and would have felt a sense of unison, ironically knowing that being alone in suffering does not mean an individual is the only one suffering. Showcasing a victim to victims was a new, objective way of uniting people and giving them hope.

A WWI veteran and the father of a Holocaust victim, August Sander sought to bring his scattered countrymen together through common hardships. Studio portraits of paying individuals were no longer important to Sander. He wanted to show the world that the philosophy of individualism was not the way to happiness or greater understanding. Instead, by taking pictures of anonymous individuals, he demonstrated that desolation itself was not desolate because it was a solitude experienced by multiple people. A person need not be one-legged, one-eyed, musical, or poor to relate to the barrel-organ player. Sander shows that a person need only have a personal interpretation to have a connection with others.


[1] Name given by the Edwynn Houk Gallery. Sander may or may not have called the picture this, but I know that it is probably speculated because the date and location are missing. These two bits of information are essential in Sander’s photography titles.

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