New Objectivity planted its roots in the minds of Germans not long after the “Great” War began. August Sander, like so many others, realized that his country had become disillusioned with the ancient idea of arête in war. There was nothing glorious about trench warfare on the Western front or the mountainous battles on the Eastern one, and the aftermath of the war stood as hard evidence of that fact. After Britain, France, and the United States forced Germany to accept the harsh points of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany understandably faced economic devastation. On one hand, the Allies expected Germany to pay full reparations to all the Allies and give up much land; on the other hand, Germany was already in a state of bankruptcy and her people faced starvation. Most of the men and women alike had to dedicate the rest of their lives to low-paying jobs that gave money that was worth almost nothing. Germans, disgusted by the notion of ideals, yearned for realism. While painters dabbled in how they could get the idea of realism across in a new genre of art, Sander made it his personal mission in life to capture realities on still film. He highlighted the poverty of Germans among all else during the era of World War I and World War II, as is depicted in one of his most famous photos, the “Coalman.”
Almost all of Sander’s known early photos, particularly those after WWI, are of people while his post-WWII photos are of landscapes. The reason for this is because he wanted to document his fellow impoverished Germans the way they were, and not in some idealistic light. He claimed in his project, Man of the Twentieth Century, “”[w]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.” The “Coalman,” also called the “Coalheaver,” is no exception. The photograph captures a weary, middle-aged man stepping out of the entrance to a brick building. Only one shoe can be seen, as he is in the action of stepping out of the doorway. It is not a luxurious shoe; instead, it is undoubtedly a worker’s shoe. Because of the difference in color, one can tell that dirt and other such grime has collected in between the laces. Similarly, his pants are filthy, spotted with stains from the coal, and they give the impression that they have been worn in that facility for many years. The man’s coat is rather large for him—an indication that he has lost some weight over the years—and his vest and shirt are almost completely hidden beneath it. On his head sits a dark hat with a single band around it. He has no tie; such an article of clothing would be impractical and inappropriate for his line of work. All of his apparel shows that he works because he is desperate, and if he does not work it shows that he will have nothing. Again, this resonates of Sander’s desire to pinpoint the destitution of Germany after the War and the Treaty of Versailles.
While a poor worker’s clothing is a repeated theme in Sander’s collection, an action is not. Here in this photo there are two distinct actions. The first is more obvious; the man is stepping from the building. His left leg is outstretched and his knee bent, and his foot is slightly slanted. His right leg appears to be in the action of lifting itself. There are probably many stairs, and the coalheaver is most likely heaving a sigh of relief. The other, more subtle action is the basket of coal he is carrying on his left shoulder. His left hand is firmly clutching the free-hanging sash attached to the basket, and his right hand anchored beneath it is there just in case he loses his grip. It is difficult to see, but there is a large knot in the cloth just below his right hand. It can be inferred that this knot was put in place because of prior experiences. Perhaps he or another worker once accidentally dropped the basket—maybe the sash ripped. In any case, it would be a necessary precaution. The cloth is definitely old, as it is both stained and tattered. On the other hand, the basket on his back looks like it is in better condition. In fact, it seems to be new. An observer has the impression that the coalminers go through many baskets. Although the coal cannot be seen in the basket, it seems that the load is hefty because of how the basket is angled. It was important for Sander to capture these two actions, for they emphasize the hazardous and exhausting situations in which some German men are.
Following action is reaction. While a photo is a still object and cannot move its components, a reaction to motion is evident in the “Coalman.” It is seen in the man’s face. His cheeks are puffed as if he is taking a deep breath. He is not a clean-shaven man, and this implies his poor financial position. For some reason, his chin is much darker than his uneven moustache, and it might actually be residue from the coal on his face rather than oddly-colored facial hair. Like most of the people in Sander’s photos, he is looking directly at the camera, but he does not smile. This seems to be a candid photo, for the man seems to have a somewhat shocked expression by the way his right eyebrow is slightly arched. All of these elements add to the coal-carrier’s rigid appearance, but they also demonstrate the effects of so much hard labor.
As the title reveals, the setting is Berlin, though Sander does not tell his viewers the name of the building or the man. Is the man coming from a mine? Is it a furnace of an office? Is he a widower and single father? Or is he a grandfather working off debts? Sander does not want to disclose this information because that would make this a personal photo. Rather, he wants Germans and others to know what kind of conditions Germany and her people as a collective are undergoing. There is evidence for this idea as the focal point of the photo is the “coalman” himself and not the building. The only details that can be gathered from this photo is that the man goes underground to collect coal and comes out onto what must be a dirty alley or back alley; or the man delivers coal. The ambiguity of the photo is up to the viewer to decide, and Sander leaves the photo ambiguous because he wants everyone to be able to identify with the photo. He does not want to force the viewer into a situation to which he or she cannot relate. The architecture of the opening is cracked and dusty, and the doors, which can barely be noticed, give the notion that they are always opened during the entirety of the day.
Given the period in which Sander was taking photos, with this particular photo being 1929, it comes as no surprise that this photograph is in black and white. There have been no manipulations, alterations, or photomontages. Sander again heightens his belief that the picture should show only the reality of things. There is one element about the color in this photo, though, that deserves attention. The man is stepping out of darkness and into the light. Sander must have intended his viewers to think of a stepping out of Hell and into Heaven. Therefore, the workplace can be called “Hell” and the home-city of Berlin can be the place of refuge, “Heaven.”
In conclusion, August Sander succeeded in his New Objectivity quest of displaying Germany in its true colors in the “Coalheaver.” He gives the world a picture of a simple, hardworking man whose jaded face invokes a sense of sympathy in the observers. This sympathy is not for the individual in the photo; rather, it is sympathy for all the impoverished Germans after World War I.
“August Sander.” The J. Paul Getty Museum. J. Paul Getty Trust,