Monday, 13 December 2010

Bite 12: August Sander - The Foster Mother, c. 1930

The Foster Mother, c. 1930
There is something inherently haunting about photographs of the blind. 

Perhaps this comes from fear. Those of us who can see - particularly those of us who take seeing, seeing deeply, as an obligation, a self-designated occupation - surely value sight, and thus it must be a great fear, as it is with me, that one could lose that oft-taken-for-granted privilege.

Or perhaps it comes from paradox. A portrait of the blind is almost ironic. To be photographed is to put on a mask. And a portrait is a photograph not just of its subject, but of that subject becoming an object (as Barthes puts it).

When photographing the blind, as Sander is here, the balance of power is decidedly slanted, raising issues of photo-ethics and what it means to give informed consent to be photographed.

These children do not know how they are being viewed, or even what it means to be viewed - which makes our seeing them all the more voyeuristic. And their concept of the camera and its power is surely naive, as they lack an understanding what it is to see and be seen. We can see their faces, they never will (it is said that if the blind could see a photograph they wouldn't know how to decipher it, having never viewed  the two dimensional).

Yet they 'stare' out at us. In the way all photographs (and all objects) do really: mute, passive, inert. 

I am drawn to the child on the far left. Their face is hidden behind another child's. They would present their face as they would want to be viewed - without knowing what that means - and possibly without knowing that they cannot even be seen by the eye of the camera. Their face is hidden as all the children's faces would be to each other.

August Sander can be seen as the grandfather of art photography portraiture, and his unflinching vision of creating a sociological archive of all people and types - in the series boldly titled People of the Twentieth Century - has had a quiet but profound influence over generations of photographers.

They say 'you can always spot a Sander portrait', the extraordinary, resolute gaze of his subjects highly unique. This image, however, stands-out in his oeuvre. As Max Kosloff explains, "The gulf between them [the children] and the viewer opens up far more widely than any division marked by class, income or ethnicity, for it is established by disparity of condition - the fact that we can see and they do not."

The nun/foster-mother is the element in traditional Sander fashion. Direct and honest in her stance and gaze, yet somewhat stand-offish. A generalised type more than an individual. The children hold on to her, relying on her sight. She is all of their eyes, staring out at us. At the same she stands-in for the viewer, seeing while those who look upon her cannot.

Max Kosloff, The Theatre of the Face: Portrait Photography Since 1900, Phaidon, 2007.