By Tucker Neel
Originally published in Artillery Magazine Vol. 2 No. 2, Oct. 2007, 40-41.
In the early 1920’s August Sander set off to photograph an astonishing cross-section of the German people, from farmers to soldiers to all sorts of notable, loveable, and felonious people in-between. His pictures are haunting and empathetic, almost nostalgic, immersed in a dry encyclopedic interest to capture everyone in front of a camera. In his photos each subject faces the camera in a direct, often frontal pose dressed in their professional garb, commonly pantomiming their daily activities. A café waitress holds a teacup; a laboratory assistant pours a mixture into a beaker. His subjects’ professions and consequential social standing are further elucidated by simple and straightforward titles. Master upholsterer, Elementary School Mistresses, Member of Parliament, Unemployed, Hawker, Beggar, Gypsy, Painter’s Wife, Member of the Hitler Youth, are at the same time Sander’s titles and the titles, the professions, of his subjects. His photos encapsulate a country on the edge of both war and a new century, a culture defined by what it does for a living, its relation to production, labor, and industry. Today, in the age of constant surveillance, where public and private, corporate and governmental cameras watch for potential criminals, terrorists, customers, or just out of sheer voyeuristic fascination, we are all photographed, videotaped, and classified in ways that would probably flabbergast Sander. What, if anything would a Sanderesque survey of our contemporary 21st Century “Western world” look like?
One possible example of such an overview comes in Kathrin Burmester’s photographic series, Peoplescapes. The work consists of seventeen 7 x 10” color photographs of slightly blurry, pixilated, anonymous walking figures shot from above. Divorced from their surroundings, isolated against a neutral grey background, they are oblivious to the camera’s gaze. Burmester achieved this effect by subtracting figures from footage she herself shot with a digital video camera.
The grey background in each image unifies the work, and is perhaps a comment on the idea of a “grey zone,” a place of indefinable orientation, a place where people are separated and cut-off from each other. This neutral grey also calls to mind the somewhat antiquated “grey card,” a photographic tool designed to calibrate the “perfect” lighting for photographic shoots. Hung together, the uniformity of the works and the vulnerability of Burmester’s subjects makes for a muted but disturbing experience.
Like Sander, Burmester deploys effective titling, opening her works to a politicized discussion of what it means to surreptitiously take pictures, watch others without their knowing. She allows the distance between herself and her subjects to guide her titling. Man with Book, Woman with Red Bag, Woman with Shopping Bag, Woman in Green, Old Man, these people are classified not by what they do, or even who they “are,” in a personalized sense, their identity is dependent upon the limited amount of information that the artist herself can deduce from her position behind the camera. What is most telling in these works is how the subjects are identified in their relation to consumption. Many of Burmester’s subjects carry around their possessions in shopping bags, evidence that they are actively participating in commerce. Today we are not what we do but what we buy.
Sander had a lofty goal: to photograph every type of person he came into contact with, to capture humanity so that we may come to better know and understand our fellow worker, our comrade, or just our coincidental neighbor. Burmester updates this practice, evacuating its idealism for the new millennium. If she mirrors the oppressive eye of the camera it is not because she imbues her work with an alienated pathos, it is because this is the world we live in and it is up to us, not her to change it.
These are some comments on this posting when it was originally up on my old blog:
Damian Hopper said…
Her titles speak to our current culture in a similar way Sanders’ speak to his. In his time, both inward and outward identity were based in large part on what someone did. And while that’s still mostly the case today, outward identity is also based in large part on what we own and where we got it for a lot of people. “Man with book” makes a statement just because so many people don’t read books anymore (or so I’ve been told).
OCTOBER 20, 2007 8:54 PM
i think a more haunting account of the postmodern peoplescape is that anonymity, which in this case is deftly exemplified by consumption, is mirrored by surveillance as security. Sanders’ subjects face their captor, ready and willing to display their defined (and perhaps unwilling) status as citizens of their conception of a new world order. Burmester’s subjects’ security is in the obscured eye of the market-state; their anonymity, not just their compulsion to buy, is their succor and their self. the 21st century persona would rather be captured immortal from without; without any will to promote their being. __bummer.
NOVEMBER 26, 2007 9:23 PM