Portraits, Power, and the Generosity of the Photograph

Thu 1 Sep 2022

In this month’s blog post on Photobooks, we look at how photobooks have represented portraiture through categorisation, classification and the Generosity of the Photograph.

Read more about Photobooks in previous blogs:


August Sander

When August Sander published Face of our Time (Anlitz der Zeit) in 1929, the intention was to give an overview of the different ‘types’ of people in Germany in the early twentieth century. As Alfred Doblin wrote in the book’s introduction, ‘…this photographer has practised a kind of comparative photography and achieved a scientific viewpoint above and beyond that of the photographer of detail… taken as a whole, they provide superb material for the cultural, class, and economic history of the last 30 years.’

Widower, 1914 – by August Sander

Widower, 1914 – by August Sander

It was a kind of photography that bridged both the anthropological photography of the 19th century and the New Objectivity of 1920s Germany. It’s work in which there is a classification and ordering that connects to questions of what it meant to be German.

That idea of the sober informative image is reinforced by Sander’s large format photography, the straightness of composition, and the frontality of the gaze. These are pictures in which every element of the subject’s body, limbs and face have been considered.

This echoes the idea of the portrait reinforcing a predominant ideology (in Sander’s case, the liberal mores of early 19th century Germany). At the same time however, there is something very special about his portraits, something that goes beyond the ‘types’ he is trying to photography.

Wolfgang Brückle said that ‘It is by associating individual with types that meaning is produced in Sander’s photographs, or more precisely, that the possible meaning of a photograph is linked to received ideas and beliefs, and that these are confirmed or tested,’ and that is one half of the equation.

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Although they are often described as deadpan (see Charlotte Cotton in The Photograph as Contemporary Art for more on deadpan), they are also filled with emotion and a narrative that takes the viewer beyond the frame. His picture of a widower with his two children, their 3 shaved heads vying for frame space, is a study in a dull melancholy, a cold sorrow embedded in the faces and bodies of the two children and reflected in the bourgeois interior. These are photographs that are poetic, personal, that go beyond the functionality of the taxonomy.

Rineke Dijkstra

For more contemporary versions of Sander’s work, you can look to people like Rineke Dijkstra and her Beach Portraits - this early series shows teenagers on the beaches of Europe and America in pictures that show both the dynamism and awkwardness of the teenage years. These are classic in-between pictures, showing people on the verge of becoming adults, but they are also portraits in their own right where the possibilities and sorrows of teenage life are at times laid bare.

Beach Portrait – by Rineke Dijkstra

Beach Portrait – by Rineke Dijkstra

Again, people of talk about Dijkstra and link it to the idea of blankness of expression, but her teenagers, her mothers, her bullfighters (all of which involve some degree of classification going on) have an energy about them that goes beyond the don’t-smile-look-into-space school of portraiture, that energy emerging and being associated with a particular age, a particular hormonal time. Dijkstra goes beyond the surface of the image, beyond the platitudes of genre or technique to find a quiet space to communicate that energy.

George Georgiou

More recently, George Georgiou categorised the people in his immaculate images of American parades. The images in his book (titled Americans Parade) are from a series of parades that Georgiou photographed in 2016. There are images from a George Washington Parade, Gay Pride, St Patrick’s Day, July 4th, Thanksgiving, Black history Month, Martin Luther King Day, a Mermaid Parade and the defeat of Jesse James.

It's a range of parades that runs across the political spectrum, with age, race, gender, and sexuality all added into the mix. Bodies, faces, and dress are set against backdrops of an urban architecture of houses, flyovers, road signs, traffic, as well as an underlay of community.

Cranberry Festival Parade, Warrens, Wisconsin - by George Georgiou

Cranberry Festival Parade, Warrens, Wisconsin - by George Georgiou

It’s a geographic and demographic classification but one which, as David Campany states in the introduction to Americans Parade describes as ‘...the generosity of photography, that it offers more than he can see...’

George Washington Day Parade, Laredo, Texas – by George Georgiou

George Washington Day Parade, Laredo, Texas – by George Georgiou

So, you see the George Washington Day Parade and there is a child passed out on the pavement, a woman blows bubble gum beside him as a man flies a stars and stripes to the side. Similarly with the Mardi Gras Parade, the Macy’s Thanksgiving or the Cranberry Festival. There is a system in place. Georghiou is photographing a series of parades. But at the same time, he is leaving the images to their own devices, and we are left to decipher the mass of faces, bodies, hairstyles, limbs, expressions, and gestures. That is the generosity of the photographer, that is the generosity of images that go beyond genre or style and allow a story to be told.

See more of Americans Parade


Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, New York, New York – by George Georgiou

And perhaps that is what marks this work out. There are plenty of books that classify, there are not so many that have that ‘generosity’ that leave an opening for the joys and sorrows of life to shine through as they do in the work of Sander, Dijkstra, and Georgiou.

Colin-Pantall-photographyColin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer and teaches on the MA Photography programme at Falmouth University.

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