Exercise 1.2 – Background as context

August Sander

‘I endeavour to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face.’ (Kozloff, 2007)

This is the first of Sander’s works that I looked at:

One man stands separate to the other two in many respects: Only he has a cigarette, his stick is at a slack angle rather than erect and his hat is angled instead of straight with a wayward lock of hair sticking out from his left side. He stands slightly behind the other two.

Everything about the characters connotes that he is the rebel or outcast in some subtle way if not overtly.

The background is blurred and simple.  The horizon is flat with the exception of a small hill immediately behind our individualist of the trio, mirroring his character.


The second selected image is this one of a German soldier taken in 1940 in the early part of WWII:

The soldier carries no expression.  He is square on to the camera in full, neat uniform and helmet.  He is portrayed as an efficient military machine, not influenced by emotion or irrational thought.  He is large in the photographic frame, hinting at his role as a sentry, blocking access to the houses and road behind.

The background here is still clearly discernible due to a moderate aperture being chosen.  It is as though Sander believes it to be an important part of the image.  The land we are stood on, as the viewer, ends perfectly in line with the soldier’s shoulders.  This hints at a body being here, militarily blocking access to outsiders while his head is with the houses.  Does he secretly long to be indoors with the residents while fulfilling his duty to stand guard?  Does he secretly harbour sympathies with the normal people affected by war? 

In the course of researching Sander, I came across the Chinese practitioner Liu Zheng, who has been referred to as ‘Chinese August Sander’ (Marien, 2014) who undertook a similarly ambitious project to photograph the many and varied peoples of China in a similar way to Sander attempted for Germany.


Here’s a photograph I took of my good friend Del a couple of weeks ago.


Del is an interesting character in that he has never driven nor owned a passport to be able to go abroad.  He still lives in the village he grew up in and works about four miles away in the nearest town – the furthest commute he’s ever had!  He is a man who loves his dogs and the Amber Valley countryside in which he lives.  For this portrait I placed Del in his favourite environment, walking locally with his dogs.  The church of Denby Village was placed in the background – the bells of which will have been a soundtrack for Del’s Sunday mornings for almost half a century, and behind that in the mist his home village of Horsley Woodhouse.



Kozloff, M. (2007) The theatre of the face: Portrait photography since 1900. London: Phaidon Press.

Marien, M.W. (2014) Photography: A cultural history. 4th edn. London, United Kingdom: Laurence King Publishing.

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