photography, writing and the spaces between
Stalwart, pensive, anonymous: the people in August Sander’s portraits are identified only by their jobs or social classes. A bricklayer; young farmers; a professional middle-class couple. Look past the titles, though, and the subjects of these images defy any attempt at collectivism. Through nuances of gaze and gesture, they display a powerful individuality. Nothing is simple, their expressions say. People least of all.
Born to German working-class parents in 1876, Sander lived to see the social upheaval of the 1960s. His life’s work, a compendium of portraits titled People of the Twentieth Century, was nothing if not ambitious. He wanted to document German society from top to bottom, and the project would consume him for over three decades. Even after his first book was banned by the Nazis—who thought his subjects insufficiently Aryan—he doggedly continued the work.
I’ve interviewed a lot of portrait photographers over the years, and many have cited Sander as a primary inspiration. He’s one of a few photographers—Arbus, Avedon and Salgado are others—whose work is revered to such an extent that they’ve become almost holy, the Prousts and Dylans of the photo world. Now, Sander has provided inspiration for Adam Kirsch, a writer who has used these portraits as jumping-off points for poems exploring class, gender and politics.
Initially, I was skeptical about Kirsch’s book, Emblems of the Passing World, just out from Other Press. On their own, Sander’s images embody something so close to perfection that it seems heretical—or at least dangerous—to mess with them. Also, embarrassing as this is for a writer to admit, I’m not a huge poetry fan. For every poem I’ve experienced as transcendent, there are many more I’ve found impenetrable, overheated or ludicrously precious.
But by the third poem in Emblems, Kirsch had won me over. Like Sander, he gives us work that is quiet, clear and well made. But like the portraits, Kirsch’s poems are also complex and rewarding of our study. They focus on nuances of gesture and expression, using them to examine how class, gender and looks affect a person’s status and destiny.
For the poor, that destiny is pretty miserable. A group of working class country children might look happy enough, but their shaven heads and wide-set eyes suggest “that they’ve been fed/A vitaminless food/And made to stay inside/Until whatever should/Have made them golden died.” Equally neglected, a young match-seller “must play at the charade/Of taking part in the economy,” but is really there to reassure the rich that he “won’t get angry or vote Communist/As long as someone comes to buy a match.”
If poverty is a bitch, though, middle-class life has its complications too. In Middle-class Child, a girl’s clasped hands and smile show confidence that she “won’t need to hit or grab/To get the good things life has promised her.” But is it good that her life has been arranged to “put off the discovery of loss”? Or will it just make that loss harder to bear when—inevitably—it comes?
Occasionally, something comes along to shake up the social order and disrupt expectations of class and gender. In the 1929 portrait Fitter, we see a mechanic in overalls, in whom beauty has been planted “like a bomb or mine”, making him a “natural aristocrat”, who’s “winning in the one arena where/The game’s not rigged in favor of the rich.” Conversely, in Professional Middle-class Couple, a mild-looking man and wife demonstrate that “the faces money makes…don’t have to be obtuse,/Entitled, vapid, arrogantly strong”. These things upend our expectations, and at least in the second case, Kirsch hints, offer hope for a more compassionate world.
By contrast, people who try to be the most transgressive might be fooling themselves. A bohemian painter’s wife who wears trousers and short hair in 1926 is a “suitably inventive mate” for the invisible painter, Kirsch notes—but this doesn’t make her equal. With dry humor, he points out that “it’s safe to say that [the painter]/Does not feel that he has to wear/A skirt or ribbons in his hair”.
I laughed out loud at that—a rare moment of levity in a collection that, for the most part, has an air of mournfulness and anxiety. Kirsch’s reflections come very much from the present, informed by what we know about German history and the events that unraveled in the 1930s and 40s. In 1925, a fraternity student with facial scars is prepared for a future of “keeping quiet, following commands/Stopping at nothing, knowing how to bleed.” In 1943, a pretty young woman’s military blouse hints at how “her generation has in store/a fate less lovely and more serious.”
In less sure hands, poems like these could have seemed gimmicky or opportunistic, and—like a bad movie adaptation—could have cast a shadow on the source material. But Kirsch pulls off a difficult act: his poems artfully articulate inchoate feelings we might have had about these images, but also offer unexpected insights. Throughout, the book is filled with inventive, alive language: a newborn is perturbed to leave the “plush womb with its steady roar”; a young, blossoming girl has “biological celebrity.”
I guess some Sander purists might be offended, wanting to leave the photographs to speak for themselves. But to me, those objections would be missing the point. Unlike an academic treatise, Emblems of the Passing World doesn’t aspire to be definitive. Instead it’s a dialogue, a series of explorations that pays homage to one of the twentieth century’s great observers. Astute and thought-provoking, it made me appreciate Sander’s work more than ever.