In a way, it is strange to think of August Sander as a photographer at the heart of the 20th Century - his work seems to belong to an earlier time and, in a sense, it does; his great subject, which he brings so piercingly to life, is the social continuity of a world then about to disappear forever. His intention seems to have been to map the whole of German culture as a single chain of being, with everyone in their rightful place, the entitled given no more or less attention than the peasant. Of course, this order, like most others, is a kind of fiction; the restless energies of modernity had already begun to undermine that seemingly immovable certainty and it is precisely this sense of incipient loss that haunts all of his work. The advent of war surely hastened that demise, but was far from being the only cause. The social order, real and imagined, which had preoccupied Sander was just the trace of something that had long since ceased to be a vital reality - it is strange to note, however, that the man himself lived on until 1964.
There are certain oddities in his catalog as well that speak of a different time and a different relation to the potential of photography as a medium, what it could and could not show. It is hard to say what exactly Sander was thinking when he decided to make this portrait of his wife holding their twin infant sons, one of whom is dead - in joy and sorrow, as the title tells us. Given that it was made roughly as the same time (1911) he was beginning to work on the pictures that would later secure his legacy, he must have seen it as having some role in that work, but to modern viewers it is rather jarring. We are now accustomed to images of death as a distant phenomenon, associated with disaster and poverty, beamed from half way around the world, or to the reality of death in a hospital setting, but in Sander’s time it was a much less sanitized, even domestic experience, particularly in the case of children, and so his willingness to make such a picture speaks to the extent of that familiarity.
With regard to composition, it is largely of a piece with many of his other portraits, but there is an undeniable tendency to read this picture somewhat differently on account of its emotionally charged subject matter. That being said, it is also rather less careful than the majority of his work from this same period, most of which has a very static quality to it and so we might say that here he is perhaps operating at the limits of his formal vocabulary, seeing not as the dispassionate photographer, but as a father, confronting his own loss, as well as that of his wife, who is at the very center of this picture holding the twins Sigrid and Helmut, the latter (seen here on the right of the image) having died just a short time before. While there is still a certain danger in attempting to read someone’s emotional state from such limited evidence as a photograph can provide, she nevertheless bears an expression that might be understood as tired and somewhat dazed. This particular moment of vulnerability is laid bare, not by the supposed objectivity of the camera, but in the shared intimacy of their grief.
Of significance is how we might situate the picture in terms of its relation to Sander’s other work, the systematic nature of which has been much emphasized, perhaps excessively so, especially since it was built up in a piecemeal fashion over a number of years, often drawing on his professional endeavors and contains some very obvious omissions of social “types” that might otherwise have been included. What this particular image reveals about Sander’s motivation is the extent to which the great continuum he sought to enshrine at the heart of his work rested, first and foremost, on fragile human bodies, even those of his own family. These individuals would be incorporated into the new social order or disappear altogether - and this would be an order explicitly modeled on the control of bodies, as they are made to conform, through war and through labour, an order that would seek to regiment bodies in new, increasingly barbaric ways. But, in the years before 1914, this was a future yet to come.