Fig 1. Young Farmers (1914)
When you look through as many photographs as I do on a daily basis there becomes an air of blindness but every once in a while a photograph comes along that keeps me awake at night. Since the first time I happened across ‘Young Farmers’ a striking photograph taken by the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) its had me mesmerised by the elements within it.
We can see three young men, all dressed similar, in fact they probably all look the same from the back view. They are all holding canes, walking along a dirt track in what appears to be a vast background of fields which is consistent with what we know about them via their title. Their heads are sitting just above the horizon line, I’m not sure if this is intentional and symbolic of their lives; keeping their heads above water?
Most of Sanders portraits look posed however these young farmers look like they’ve been stopped in their tracks. They still have one foot pointing towards their destination as if they are eager to get there.
I’m wondering where have they come from? Are they farm owners or labourers? How far have they walked? Do they have wives at home or moms and dads? Are they going out to seek wives and begin their adult journey?
We can interpret what we see in the photograph and draw certain assumptions from it’s context. The man on the left is emulating many signs of being a labourer or peasant with his unkept hair peeking through the rim of his hat and the cigarette casually resting on his lips. His gaze communicates with a no nonsense attitude almost as if his difficult life is worn on his face. His cane, which is far too big for him, sits aslant in comparison to the other two men who have more of a perpendicular stance. Could the man on the left of the photograph have borrowed his cane from someone far taller. Is he too poor to buy his own? Then how can he afford a suit? The answer lies in the point in history when suits became prêt-à-porter and affordable to all. In the early 1900’s Suits ceased to be exclusive to the higher earning professionals who wore tailored clothing. Throughout the 1800’s and prior, clothing was a clear indicator for the separation of the classes. However with the introduction of ready to wear garments segregation became jaded although not lost. Wearing an ‘off the peg’ suit would say as much about a person as not wearing one at all. Look at the shorter man on the left; his trousers are far too long for him; if this suit was made by a tailor the hem of the trouser would fall neatly on his shoe. This is replicated on his friends suggesting they are all in the same class.
Another class give away is the mere fact that they’re walking to the dance and not driving. Don’t forget there weren’t any restrictions on drink driving back then so if they owned a car, they would have driven the car to the dance.
In relation to their suits being suggestive of caste, they are also a clue as to where the men are heading. Wearing their best clothing, suited and booted, given the fact they aren’t rich men they must be heading to a social gathering possibly with the attention of attracting a mate. Their classic catalogue pose is reciprocal of the advertisements in magazines and newspapers for such garments of the time and indicative of how special they are feeling too. In the era the photograph was taken they would have been heading for a county dance meeting local people for drinking, dancing and socialising although I could see the man on the left getting into mischief by judgement of his demeanors. The man in the middle looks far more relaxed and even starts to break a smile, perhaps he just wants to look his absolute best for the photograph. Imagine if they had known how famous thier photograph would be. The man on the right looks more anxious almost as if he objects to being stopped and photographed.
This heavy concentration on social classes formed the apotheosis of Sanders life work. This photograph is from his series entitled, ‘The Farmer’. Other series of his work includes, The Atists, The skilled Tradesmen and classes and professions. In these works, Sander draws attention to the subjects social classes which is in contrast to what other photographs of the time were doing. Many portraits were composed to hide the subjects class, very often by dressing up in finer clothing than they could afford and being placed in a setting they could only dream of. This type of portrait photography allowed people to escape from their trappings if only for a moment and ingrained in time by the finished product. Sanders did the opposite, his photographs were very carefully composed to include all the information a viewer would need to expose their social class. With such a big emphasis on social class Sanders never referred to his subjects class status, instead they were referred to by their occupation and therefore extending the information offered to the viewer. In this instance Sanders has given the title, ‘Young Farmers’ so we already know two things about them, they are young and farmers. This in consistent throughout his work.
Viewing this photograph also links me to other arts and in particular music. My own identity and experiences have given me a song thats plays in my head when I look at the men in the photograph. ‘Stand and Deliver’ by Adam Ant (Stuart Goddard) in 1981 has the opening lyrics:
I’m the dandy highwayman who you’re too scared to mention
I spend my cash on looking flash and grabbing your attention
Thats exactly what they remind me of, dandy highway men who have spent their paltry wages on looking good and grabbing attention. They certainly grabbed my attention.
I tried to research who these men are and what happened to them but sadly I couldn’t find any texts with such information. I’d like to think that each one of them found a beautiful woman at the the dance that night, married, had children and lived happy organic farming lives. As for their class well, you can be happy despite of the amount of money you earn as long as your mind has a love of life.
Fig 1. Sander, A. (1914) Young Farmers. At http://augustsander.org/md20jh/motives/view/15 (accessed 03/08/17)
Clarke, G. 1997. The Photograph. 1st ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wells L. 2015. Photography A Critical Introduction. 5th ed. Oxon: Routledge.