SOCIAL CLASS THEORY: Breaking Through the Skin of Human Culture

August Sander photographed German citizens from all classes and walks of life. Rich, poor, men, women, revolutionaries, artists, tramps, professionals, children, laborers, Communists, Social Democrats, Anglo Saxons, Gypsies,Nazis and Negroes stood or sat squarely in front of his camera, fully conscious of the photographer’s intention and of their own role in society. Sander photographed his subjects in flat light, making no attempt to flatter them, and then printed the unretouched photographs on glossy paper in order to reveal every detail. “It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures,” he wrote.

1928. A between wars legislator arises with celluloid collar and poised umbrella to defend the Weimar Republic against Hitler- perhaps.

Although he was German, the needs theory of Abraham Maslow and John Burton is strikingly apparent;   issues of identity, security, and recognition, are critical to the composition of Sander’s work and provide a subtext for the  intractable conflicts that arose after World War One. In hindsight, the fundamental sources of conflict and the unmet needs were beyond a negotiation of international interests; or at least it was not the only issue.  Part of the intractable conflict was the fossilized social class structure that was unwilling to transform itself , and open itself to challenge based on attitude. The logical extension of all this was Heidegger doing manual work digging ditches for the Nazis.

Blind Children. "The two girls in this photograph face the camera in a vague imitation of traditional posing principles. Their interlocking hands provide the emotional core of the image, compensating for their inability to make eye contact with the camera and with one another. For the final section of People of the Twentieth Century, in which this portrait is found, Sander photographed "idiots, the sick, the insane, and the dying." Whether single figures or groups, indoors or out, these "last people" are presented in the same uncompromising way that he approached his other subjects. Remarkably, Sander never let his work devolve into a clinical exercise, but instead imbued it with a sense of engagement with and respect for his subjects. "

The German faces he photographed seem to tell of a time long past; yet neither the types they represent nor the individuals themselves are necessarily all extinct. The fledgling teacher below was recorded at the beginning of his career, at about the same time Hitler began his; and for all anyone knows, he may have taught another rising generation after him.

“An idealist in the tradition of German nationalism, Heidegger’s fate was to be that of the faithless thinker, ultimately disloyal to German fascism because it was not sufficiently metaphysical, yet unable to reconcile himself to western liberalism because it was, in his estimation, the political self-consciousness of technicity. For this reason, Heidegger ended the war digging ditches, having been ousted by German university authorities acting at the behest of state fascism as the University of Freiburg’s “most dispensable Professor.”… Always a metaphysician, always in transition to the next historical stage of the “will,” always in rebellion against the impurities of compromised philosophical vision, Heidegger’s mind was fully attuned to the restless stirrings of the will as its broke from its twin moorings in ethnic fundamentalism and industrial capitalism and began to project itself into world-history in the pure metaphysical form of the “will to will.” Beyond time and space, breaking through the skin of human culture, respecting no national borders, an “overcoming” that first and foremost overcomes its own nostalgic yearnings for a final appearance in the theatre of representation, the will to will, what Heidegger would come to call the culture of “pure technicity,” was the gleam on the post-human horizon, and Heidegger was its most faithful reporter.”

August Sander himself dates far back into the imperial era, yet he also survived several German upheavals theerafter. Reared in a Rhineland village to be a coal miner, young Sander resolved just before the century’s turn to pursue his hobby of portrait photography and to try to make a living from it. In the old Germany’s stratified closed society, this made him an original; and he was to become even more original as a deadly commentator on that society, both in its flower and its subsequent decay.

The gargantuan pastry cook stands rooted like some ancient tribal giant in the Teutonic landscape.

“If I, August Sander, a man in good physical and emotional health, purport to see things as they are and not as they should or could be, then I hope I will be forgiven, for I cannot do otherwise. I have been a photographer for 30 years and have dedicated myself to my work with all the devotion that I have to give, the path I have chosen has varied, but it has taught me to recognise my mistakes. The exhibition in the Cologne Art Gallery represents the results of my research, and I hope I am on the right track. Nothing is more abhorrent to me than sugary-sweet photography full of pretence, poses, and gimmickry. For this reason, I have allowed myself to tell the truth about our times and people in a sincere manner….I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It’s you…. ”

Schoolteacher. 1929. "and Sander's charcoally blacks seemed fathomless somehow, more like darkness than like paper. I've never seen prints quite like his, before or since. Sander was famously attempting to photograph "types." Of course his people are not types, they're individuals. But I think the key to his great project (one of the great beacons in photo history arguing the merits of pursuing a consistent, persistent long-term project) is that his sociological ambitions allowed him to cut through the usual petty tyrannies of portraiture. They allowed him a crucial documentary distance. Let's face it, most portraits have a purpose—they're either made for some client or they're made for some specific reason. Their purpose is almost never just to show what someone looked like on the particular occasion the picture was taken. Sander's portraits are connected, representative, and objective, in a way that modern ironic art photographers often reference but seldom equal. Sander's "sociology" had a spiritual aspect too—after all, his lifelong muse and guide was Goethe. "

Sander believed that society was organized into a hierarchy of occupations.People of the Twentieth Century, the collective portrait of German society made by German photographer August Sander, has fascinated viewers from its earliest presentation in a 1927 exhibition and the controversial publication of a selection of 60 images in the book “Face of the Time” published two years later. Despite Sander’s dedication over five decades to the idea and compilation of this portrait atlas of the German people, the project remained unfinished. Nonetheless, his photographs remain co

ling, in part because he chose to categorize his subjects by profession or social class.

Yet in his shrewd search after the day's passing types, Sander looked far and fixed certain individuals whose meaning, comic or tragic, or both, extends far beyond their own time.

To outward appearance, Sander remained just another everyday photographer in the area around Cologne, busy posing burghers, farmers, tradesmen in their Sunday best. He did enjoy some brief fame with “Portrait of Our Time” , a supposed prelude to a larger compilation. But while critics applauded, the incoming Nazis soon after suppressed his work as “undesireable” , though not the more fatal category of “degenerate”. It was not until thirty years later that the editor of the Swiss art magazine “Du” , haunted by the memory of that submerged sheaf, discovered that Sander was still alive, tracked down the octogenarian and his prints, and so launched a revival of his works.

Painter Anton Raderscheidt. "A voracious reader, Sander was familiar with the works of Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Neitzsche, Rilke, and Thomas Mann. He did not embrace a particular ideology or philosophy but valued Wahrheit, (truth). His fascination with the natural world -- people, plants, clouds, geology, herbs and animals -- heightened his awareness of group similarities and common types of appearances. He believed that knowledge of patterns and types would increase an understanding of reality."

Sander’s photographs are deeply psychological, as if the artist simultaneously captured the social role people were eager to present to his camera, and also the unique personality behind the role.The images are thus representations of types, as he intended them to be, rather than portraits of individuals. August Sander (1876-1964) was the great German photographer from the first half of the twentieth century who brought a new, objective realism to photography and redefined ideas about portraiture. Having become convinced that photography and painting were completely separate media and should follow independent courses, Sander strove for photographic portraits that were sharp and clear, free from retouching or manipulation. Sander’s cool, spare style of portraiture anticipated contemporary works like Irving Penn’s “Worlds in a Small Room,” Richard Avedon’s “Portraits of the American West,” and Paul Strand’s portraits of Mexican and Italian peasants.

"In the photograph, "Country Girls," 1925, two sturdy blond girls stand stiffly before the camera holding hands and wearing identical dark dresses and watches. It seems safe to assume they are sisters, so closely do they resemble each other in appearance, expression and manner. Indeed, their similarity and closeness is as disquieting as a Diane Arbus photograph, for their dark dresses visually give the impression of one large shape with two heads emerging from it."

The images make clear why the Nazis would have none of him. He peered all to sharply at the character of their country’s life, with an unerring sense of the foibles and pretensions of class and caste. But what made him more devastating is that he seemed to see with an innocent , simple eye leveled from within the heap. Here is no intellectual such as the George Grosz of Bertolt Brecht of the 1920’s, deliberately out to satirize and undermine the established order. Here, behind the camera is a little man who was himself part of that order, and who is separated from it only by the click of his remorseless shutter.

A glacial, overserious figure that could be the archetype of German minor officialdom.


Liz Kay:Sander believed in a “functional individual existence and an integral collective order.” Yet he lived through the complete breakdown of his world under Hitler’s regime. The city of Cologne where he and his family had lived and which he had photographed extensively was destroyed, his home was burned down, and his children were in constant danger for their lives. The anti-Nazi activities of his son Erich in 1934 brought Sander himself under government scrutiny. Although his photographs were never intentionally political the sheer diversity of his subjects threatened the Nazi’s idealized doctrine of a pure, heroic German race.

Composer Paul Hindmith. "His concept and method is almost a caricature of Teutonic methodology, and if it had been executed by a lesser artist the result might well have been another dreary typological catalogue. Sander, however, was a very great photographer. His sensitivity to individual subjects, to expression, gesture, posture and symbols seems unerringly precise. His pictures show two truths simultaneously and intentionally; the social abstraction of occupation and the individual who serves it. The masks reveal every bit as much as the face they attempt to hide."

They ordered that all the publisher’s printing blocks of his volume of photographs entitled, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time) be destroyed and copies of the book be seized. Sander turned his camera to landscape, nature studies, and industrial architecture. He and his wife survived the Third Reich, but their home was ransacked and their son, Erich, died in 1944 in a Nazi prison.

Erik Olin Wright:Class is part of a broader multidimensional schema of stratification in Weber in which the most central contrast is between “class” and “status”. Status groups are defined within the sphere of communal interaction (or what Weber calls the “social order”) and always imply some level of identity in the sense of some recognized “positive or negative social estimation of honor” . A status group cannot exist without its members being in some way conscious of being members of the group: “In contrast to classes, Stände (status groups) are normally groups” .

"Here Ada Riphahn, the wife of Wilhelm Riphahn, who designed the Cologne Opera House, radiates a confidence appropriate to her age and social standing. The plush velvet chair, feathery dog at her side, and shimmering blouse are balanced by the strong lines of the drapery to create a richly textured portrait."

This conceptual contrast between class and status for Weber is not primarily a question of the motives of actors: It is not that status groups are derived from purely symbolic motives and class categories are derived from material interests. Although people care about status categories in part because of their importance for symbolic ideal interests, class positions also entail such symbolic interests, and both status and class are implicated in the pursuit of material interests. As Weber  writes, “material monopolies provide the most effective motives for the exclusiveness of a status group” . Rather than motives, the central contrast between class and status is the nature of the mechanisms through which class and status shape inequalities of the material and symbolic conditions people’s lives. Class affects material well-being directly through the kinds of economic assets people bring to market exchanges. Status affects material well-being indirectly, through the ways that categories of social honor underwrite various coercive mechanisms that, in Weber’s  words, “go hand in hand with the monopolization of ideal and material goods or opportunities”.

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