In 1912, the German photographer August Sander began a monumental project entitled “Man in the 20th Century”. Sander would tour the country lanes outside Cologne on the lookout for subjects, his heavy equipment strapped to his bicycle, accosting bemused farmers and workers as he set up his impromptu studio at the side of the road. Among his first subjects were three young farmers dressed in their finery who, in pausing for a moment on their way to a dance one evening, gave Sander one of his masterpieces.
Nearly a century later, there is still something strikingly modern about this picture; that such a brief encounter could be distilled into an image so poignant demonstrates extraordinary skill. It is one of the highlights of a show of Sander’s portraits at Edinburgh’s Dean Gallery.
Sander’s ambition was to record German society’s “types”, believing he could create a survey that would provide a cultural and economic history of a generation. Rather than referring to their names, his subjects were identified by their trades and appear here in the seven sections into which they were originally divided.
His detached style reflects his professed aim “to see things as they are and not as they should or could be”. Repetition became his modus operandi – he made numerous similar photographs of the same subject, as Eugène Atget had done with Parisian shopfronts and Edward S. Curtis had with his studies of native Americans.
Eschewing the distortion and experimental viewpoints used by his avant-garde contemporaries, Sander arranged and lit his sitters with the precision of traditional portraiture and concentrated on one thing over and over: the condition in which he found them. Favouring large-format cameras with lengthy exposures that allowed him to focus on detail, he directed the viewer’s gaze to his subjects’ physical qualities – how their diet and work affected their bodies, the wrinkles and textures of their clothes, the lines and freckles on their faces and hands.
Sander described his role as “assisting a self-portrait”. He allowed his sitters to present themselves how they wanted, and depending on their mood and their assumed levels of importance and rank, they rise up or shrink within the frame, with their postures, expressions and affectations speaking volumes. The first room perfectly pitches a double portrait of two wild-haired boxers grinning gawkily against a closely cropped shot of a confident, smooth-skinned young aviator with his chin tilted towards the sky. Further on, a stout pastry cook holds a whisk and copper bowl with a puffed-up pride that fills his stiff white coat. Pictured in the next photograph he stands as a broken widower, his hands on the shoulders of his two sons, looking down and away from the camera.
The idea of not making a comment in one’s work would have been anathema to the French writer, actress and artist Claude Cahun, whose self-portraits explode with ideas about gender and identity. An exhibition of her work is on display in the impressive space at Inverleith House, also in Edinburgh. Loosely linked with the Surrealist movement, Cahun – born Lucy Schwob – was a subversive figure; a forerunner to artists such as Cindy Sherman and Francesca Woodman, she presented herself before the lens in a prodigious number of guises. She rejected traditional models of femininity and insisted on being taken seriously. She appears at the entrance to the show shaven-headed and without eyebrows in a series of visceral black and white self-portraits.
In 1937, Cahun and Marcel Moore, her stepsister and lover – who had also adopted a more masculine pseudonym – moved to Jersey. This resulted in the wave of intriguing photographs displayed in the adjoining two rooms. Following the theme of self-reflection, Cahun placed herself within a series of mises-en-scène exploring the myth of Narcissus. In a pose that is an inversion of the classic imagery of someone enraptured by his own reflected image, she floats, eyes closed, partly submerged by the waves. In another she poses on the edge of a rock pool, pointedly turned away from the water, her body partly camouflaged by fronds of seaweed.
During the German occupation of the Channel Islands, Cahun and Moore were arrested and sentenced to death for producing anti-Nazi leaflets but released when Jersey was liberated in May 1945. On her release, Cahun made a striking self-portrait. From a distance it is different from her confrontational earlier work, a seemingly innocuous portrait of a middle-aged woman in a raincoat, her white hair encased by a matronly headscarf. Clamped between her teeth, though, is a Nazi eagle insignia. Unlike the studiously neutral Sander, Cahun was never less than pointed.