Being for the Benevolence of August Sander

I recently visited Tate Modern’s collection display, Photographic Topologies, which brought together the work of artists whose use of photography presents a systematic, or ‘topological’ approach. Typically, these works show multiple images of similar subjects. On display were portraits of Thomas Ruff, Rineke Dijkstra and Paul Graham, and architectural subjects in the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto. Through repetition these artists reveal subtle contrasts and similarities in their subjects.

Of course the typological method is most well known for its pioneer, the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964); whose work I specifically went to see. Examples ran along the central gallery, taken from Sander’s seminal ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, a vast collection of portraits documenting the society of the Weimar Republic according to profession and social grouping. It was great to see them up close. Many times I have looked at the ‘stiff’, ‘self-importance’ (to borrow Barthes’ words) of Sander’s Notary as it appears neatly on a page in Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. The portrait shows a figure in a hat and buttoned-up coat, holding a cane. He stands before a brick building with a curved flight of steps and stares blankly away from the camera, perfectly perpendicular to that of a dog who stands before him. Given that Barthes in the relevant passage writes how the ‘Photograph of the Mask … [is] critical enough to disturb’ and that ‘[p]hotography is subversive …when it is pensive, when it thinks’, I have frequently considered the strict, cool-eyed work of Sander to relate in some kind of  ‘zero-degree’ seeing. Indeed, according to the curator’s notes, ‘Sander’s process of analysing and ordering his images was matched by the rigorous, objective style of the photographs themselves. All of his subjects are observed by the photographer with the same neutral distance’.

Sander, then, has always been on my list of artists to include in a study of ‘zero degree seeing’. As I stood there in the gallery, peering at the pictures framed on the wall, I was still inclined to link Sander to the Neutral, yet not in the way I had first imagined… Let me first state the case for my original thinking on Sander’s work. Before coming to Barthes’ The Neutral, I had long thought about how images, and particularly photography, might be considered to undo categories and structures of meaning. I’ve read the passage on Sander in Camera Lucida countless times and every time I seem to have come away with a slightly different view. Even in itself, this suggested to me something about how ‘the image’ unmoors our thinking in ways that are seemingly productive, even cohesive, yet without properly ‘fixing’ (the word here has a nice irony since photograph are – or at least used to – ‘fixed’ in the darkroom to stop them from simply fading away). At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes suggests in an epic, final line that there are two ways to look at the Photograph: ‘The choice is mine: to subject its spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions, or to confront in it the wakening of intractable reality’.

Turning back to the passage on Sander, we can start by thinking that here is an example of pure, intractable reality. Barthes suggest this is in a sense the reason why Sander’s work was censored at the time, being ‘critical enough to disturb’. Sander’s photographs have no come-back. They are directly what they show. The notary, for example, is exactly as shown – yet in being shown, we suddenly realise we don’t know what this means. The code of perfect illusions is immediately revealed as a code and bursting through is the intractable reality of the man in the photograph, who we soon start to know less and less. Barthes remarks that in the commercial sphere ‘no meaning at all is safer: the editors of Life rejected Kertész’s photographs … because, they said, his images “spoke too much”; they made us reflect…’. The question is: does Sander’s work make us reflect? ‘Photography is subversive,’ Barthes argues, ‘not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks’. I have always looked upon the Notary as the embodiment of this ‘pensive’ image. We do not know what the man is thinking, but we believe he is nonetheless. He stares firmly into the distance, though seemingly at a brick wall (which perhaps adds to the strength of his stare). His hands are clasped tightly too and the dog adds further ‘bite’ to the composition. The notary’s stare then becomes our own as we start to think about the meaning of the image; why it was taken, who this person might be and what significance he holds.

This, I feel, is the effect of moving between the pages of Camera Lucida, and in many ways has remained my way of thinking about Sander, whether I like it or not! Yet, looking again (and again) at the text, Barthes is actually quite clear. He considers him a ‘great mythologist’, but whose work ends up an aestheticisation of the political:

Sander’s Notary is suffused with self-importance and stiffness, his Usher with assertiveness and brutality; but no notary, no usher could ever have read such signs. As distance, social observation here assumes the necessary intermediary role in a delicate aesthetic, which renders it futile: no critique except among those who are already capable of criticism.

Not only then a highly constructed image, but indeed a ‘spectacle’ which we submit to the ‘civilized code of perfect illusions’. Surely then, too full of ‘paradigm’ for anything of the Neutral?

One of the prints in the gallery was Sander’s ‘Victim of Persecution’ (c1938). He is a neat, well-to-do man. There are no immediate signs of being persecuted (though of course that is what the picture questions in itself). The man is a little sullen, and the framing of the image (the upper torso and face turned slightly to one side, his eye-line a little raised) evokes for me a man in the dock (though perhaps I’ve seen too many courtroom dramas!), yet there is really so little to go on. Yet what struck me was the feeling of a certain benevolence. The directness of the photograph and the succinct title gives no reason other than to believe this person is who they say they are. The man looks benevolent and I feel similarly towards him. But what do I mean by benevolence in this case? The man is not ‘real’ for me and I will never have to prove my benevolvence. He is only an image. He does evoke reflection in me, though in no way is this something I can easily articulate. If it were simply a ‘kindly feeling’ I held towards the image/this man it wouldn’t necessarily be of interest. In The Neutral, Barthes distinguishes between ‘dry and damp’ benevolence. Damp benevolence is ‘on the side of demand: “kindness” … diffuse aura of amiability’; so being the more common-place meaning of the word. Dry benevolence, however, refers to Taoist thinking: ‘A stiff benevolence, because rooted in indifference. For the sage, everything is equal. Refrains from exerting a function’.

Looking at the series of the photographs in the gallery, what I saw was simply a ‘batch’ of photographs. The stiffness, the exactness, the pensiveness – all as we associate with Sander – was not matched in the physicality of these prints. Some lacked focus, others the edges were not strict. I did not feel in the presence of some ‘intractable reality’ – there was nothing to puncture my world. However, these were not ‘tame’ images either. At the close of Camera Lucida, Barthes complains of a consumption of images, as some kind of ‘nauseated boredom, as if the universalized image were producing a world that is without difference (indifferent)’. On this count, what I saw in the images – as refraining ‘from exerting a function’ – would seem to place them under Barthes’ critical eye, so as to ‘subject spectacle to the civilized code of perfect illusions’. But I would prefer to appropriate his reading of a dry benevolence. As I stood in the gallery, wondering what to make of the photographs, wondering if others around me could see more than I might, I tried to grasp at what the sage might see: a radical vision, in which ‘everything is equal’. Standing before these photographs perhaps many of us could repeat Barthes thoughts: ‘I feel this “benevolence” for people who are such strangers to me that I have no occasion for internal conflict with them = total and peaceable incommunication’.

Neutral Remains…

The salient feature of Gauguin’s Green Christ (1889) painting appears in the foreground: the mournful woman sat before a calvary, a sculpture of Christ’s crucifixion. Christ lies on a diagonal, with his arm extending straight down like the pendulum of a grandfather clock, forming a perfect triangular framing of the woman, whose body twists awkwardly.

However, when I saw the painting – in amongst the crowds – at the recent exhibition at Tate Modern I was immediately drawn to the small figure in the middle-distance. A lone, weary fisherman appears between the sand dunes; placed someway between the edge of the sea from where he has come (on the left of the painting) and the route which takes him beyond the picture frame (to the right)). He is returning from a day’s work (though being a fisherman the day no doubt stretches forth for the rest of us); upon his shoulder a rack of fish being the only, though surely significant ‘remains of the day’. I want to suggest this figure is a delicate sighting/siting of the Neutral. To develop this line of thinking I will take a literary detour, with Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day; to help work upon some of Barthes’ observations of a certain ‘neutral’ weariness…

The novelist Kazuo Ishiguro would seem an exemplary writer of the Neutral. His first-person narratives offer poignant revelations, yet generally only through suggestiveness and ambiguity. The pathos he generates typically derives not from a character’s action, but inaction. The narrator of his most well-known, Booker-prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day, is the butler, Mr Stevens. He is surely the epitome of neutrality both in the simple sense of his profession, as someone whose presence must never interfere, and with regards the more complex matter of being unable to reconcile his sense of service with his personal life (specifically his romantic feelings for housekeeper Miss Kenton).

Given Ishiguro’s storytelling is always based in a past history and through a private telling of that past, there is generally a melancholic air to his novels, and in fact his work is often described in terms of the Japanese idea of mono no aware, which literally means ‘the pathos of things’. However, it is easy to be heavy-handed with accounts of melancholia. Mono no aware is also translated as ‘an empathy toward things’ or ‘sensitivity of ephemera’. In Japanese it refers to the awareness of mujo, the transience of things coupled with gentle sadness or wistfulness. Thus there is beauty in transience and not least in the acceptance of transience.

It is easy to see only loss – of love and lives wasted – in Mr Stevens’ final reflections upon the ‘remains of the day’. As Miss Kenton utters the line ‘I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens’, it is as if gravity itself is lost. There then follows a seemingly vain attempt to look upon things happily; Mr Stevens seated alone upon a bench declares quietly to himself: ‘I should cease looking back so much … I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of the day’. However, the narrative of loss is perhaps too easily overlaid, and for two main reasons. Firstly, for Mr Stevens’ the sense of duty to his profession is genuinely as much a passion as he might hold for Miss Kenton. And in fact both passions are figured with a similar reserved quality; an ardent reserve even. His is an intense, strong quest both to define and live a life of dignity. Secondly, whilst Stevens himself might be said to repress his feelings, the narrative he tells offers insight to a heightened experience, or empathy towards things. There is tremendous beauty revealed through sustained, quiet discernment. His attention to detail: the quality of light, for example, the careful annotation of events and formations. Mr Stevens is attuned to many nuances of his day to day. The closing revelatory sequence, for example, takes place amidst rain and neutral toned light:

The light in the room was extremely gloomy on account of the rain, and so we moved two armchairs up close to the bay window. And that was how Miss Kenton and I talked for the next two hours or so, there in the pool of grey light while the rain continued to fall steadily on the square outside.

It is during this exchange that Mr Stevens considers a weariness that has come over Miss Kenton:

Miss Kenton appeared, somehow, slower. It is possible this was simply the calmness that comes with age, and I did try hard for some time to see it as such. But I could not escape the feeling that what I was really seeing was a weariness with life; the spark which had once made her such a lively, and at times volatile person seemed now to have gone. In fact, every now and then, when she was not speaking, when her face was in repose, I thought I glimpsed something like sadness in her expression. But then again, I may well have been mistaken about this.

The possibility of his having been mistaken is important here. On the one hand, both are older, slower with life. And, as the story unfolds, there is sadness at the root of this relationship. Yet, the uncertainty Mr Stevens notes of here is what allows for a remaining intensity (remnants of the volatile!). Barthes’ identifies a root to weariness that is related to the body (labour, lassitude and fatigue). Labor is, as Barthes suggests, easily associated with the rural and with manual work – it is a word we of course relate to class conditions. Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton are of a working class. They have labored all their lives cleaning and tending to the estate of a landowner. But weariness is harder to place; perhaps if anything, Barthes writes, ‘it is hard to connect … with the worker’s, the farmer’s, the employee’s manual or assimilated type of work’. He suggests the following experiment:

…draw up a table of received (credible) excuses: you want to cancel a lecture, an intellectual task: what excuses will be beyond suspicion, beyond reply? Weariness? Surely not. Flu? Bad, banal. A surgical operation? Better, but watch out for the vengeance of fate! Cf. the way society codifies mourning in order to assimilate it: after a few weeks, society will reclaim its rights, will no longer accept mourning as a state of exception…

What interests Barthes in weariness, then, is that it is not codified. Instead, it:

…always functions in language as a mere metaphor, a sign without referent … that is part of the domain of the artist (of the intellectual as artist) -> unclassified, therefore unclassifiable: without premises, without place, socially untenable -> whence Blanchot’s (weary!) cry: “I don’t ask that weariness be done away with. I ask to be led back to a region where it might be possible to be weary.” -> Weariness = exhausting claim of the individual body that demands the right to social repose (that sociality in me rest a moment … ). In fact, weariness = an intensity: society doesn’t recognize intensities.

In light of these remarks, we might say society does not recognize the intensity between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton. The book ends, or delivers even this very sign without referent. It is held between these bodies who have labored and grown slow with life, but who equally still bear witness to a ‘neutral’ or unclassified state (‘without premises, without place’) – and this is what they impart still further (hence the intensity of the book itself).

Returning, then, to the fisherman in Gauguin’s Green Christ, I’m wondering if we can now see this neutral weariness in just a mere fleeting scene. There is the juxtaposition of what is heavy and angular in the foreground and the delicate S-bend of the fisherman. His is an existence of labor, he is a ‘tire that flattens’, returning from his work. Whilst in the foreground is the weight of a spiritual (intellectual?) realm. The latter is heavily codified. It inscribes one’s right to think. The former, however, is ambivalent. The fisherman walks  away (freely?) from his responsibility (if only until tomorrow). Is he content in his weariness? He seems to lead up to ‘a region where it might be possible to be weary’…