Background Context


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GERICHTSVOLLZIEHER, UM 1930 [BAILIFF, C. 1930], Camera image to left, final image to right

“August Sander – People of the 20th Century.”, Accessed Feb 3, 2018.

Sander’s Chutzpah

One of Sander’s categories of the “People of the 20th Century” project was ‘People Who Came To My Door’. The gentleman depicted above is named as ‘Bailiff’ and I greatly admire Sander’s commitment to the work – having dispensed with the tedious matter of distraint being levied on his goods and chattels, Sander coerces the unwelcome visitor to pose for him. I like to imagine that Sander viewed this as a little victory, a silent riposte to the injustices of usury.


I’ve included both pictures above, the contact print and the final rendition, to show something of the photographer’s cropping and manipulation decisions. When the above picture was made, Sander had already been working on the project for nineteen years, so he had a pretty good idea of how he wanted the photographs to look. Here he has chosen to stand his subject up against an interior wall which we understand from the sub-title to be in his own house. A plain background with natural light arriving from the right and reflected back by the surface on the left; a soft light, evenly illuminating his subjects. Later the negative has been cropped in printing to exclude evidence of the location and adjusted to darken the overall tone.

Props and background

The articles denoting the bailiff’s occupation are included; the portmanteau containing his ledger, official notices and thumbtacks to attach to the doors of unfortunate debtors. I expect the bailiff arrived with this, along with his pipe, overcoat, scarf, hat and well heeled shoes. Sander wouldn’t have to do much here, just a ‘please stand over there and stay quite still’. Probably not a prolonged sitting and no beverage offered.

In his other work the background and props were more in evidence:


Schreinermeister, 1938 [Master Joiner, 1938]

“August Sander – People of the 20th Century.”, Accessed Feb 3, 2018.

In this photograph the subject has been carefully contextualised with respect to his occupation. Not only are the tools of his trade clearly shown, his is posed actually using them. Sander is sending a clear message here – the picture communicates the preconceptions he himself has about joiners, and more specifically master joiners. The joiner looks squarely to the camera and therefore to the viewer. His expression suggests an invitation to survey, to appreciate the craftsmanship, a willingness to be examined. He works in wood, making the material smooth and square. He measures and marks with precision using the instruments in his top pocket. The shavings curl obediently from the blade at the bidding of his skilled hands. He wears a wristwatch – he is a modern master joiner.


The background, predictably, is wood; it’s a woodwork shop and there is plenty of it around. But looking closely at the alignment of bench and background an anomaly arises – they meet at an acute angle, rendering practical use of the bench difficult. Sander has placed the wood sheet behind the subject to isolate him from the rest of the setting, presumably because he felt it distracted from the simple purity of the foreground composition. There is further context here in the nature of the sheet which appears to be plywood, at the time a relatively modern innovation.


The subject placement and camera position combine to produce a dynamic arrangement. It’s easy to imagine the travel of the smoothing plane from the middle of the picture to the far bottom corner. The workpiece and plane, in combination, lead the eye to the centre of the man’s body and via the line of the shirt buttons directly to his eyes. He leans slightly forward to meet the viewer as he propels the plane over the wood; a craftsman indeed.

This is…

Rich and he has a gallery/studio in the small seaside town where I live. I didn’t really know him because we only became acquainted through an appeal for sitters for another assignment. But by the time he came to be photographed I did know him, so he fits the bill.


Rich had one or two of his own and after talking them through we settled on an homage to the photograph of Basquiat by Lizzie Himmel, made for the New York Times in 1985. Basquiat had a brief but intense artistic career, producing paintings in his NYC studio before his death aged just 27. This picture shows Basquiat among his own work, holding brush and paint tube, wearing paint spattered suit but without socks. The photographer had needed to dress the somewhat worse-for-wear artist, managed the suit and tie but gave up before footwear could be located.


Lizzie Himmel. 1985

Props and background

Like Basquiat, Rich is in his own studio, sans socks, surrounded by canvasses and the accoutrements of the artist. He wears paint spattered trousers and grasps a pair of paintbrushes but unlike Basquiat his gaze is clear and unfuddled. His pose has the feel of the Himmel photograph but hers is pretty obscure, and not particularly well known so the casual observer is unlikely to recognise any similarities. I haven’t yet worked out whether or why this might matter; does the viewer’s experience (‘I’ve seen that before’) diminish the novel photograph?

The setup

It was almost dark by three o’clock so no real daylight to use. The gallery has no specialist lighting yet, so the only practical lighting was overhead fluorescents.  I discounted these as they provided no atmosphere at all.  I started with a softbox to the right about 2m from the subject – soft but not too much so.  The flash head promptly refused to fire even on test so I had to use a shoot-through white umbrella.  There was a lot of spill to the background to I flagged it with the dark side of a reflector.  I added another light in the back room to light the easels and canvasses, this to further establish the place as a working environment.  Rich was a bit underlit so I added a further unit with a snoot to the left.  This had the rather pleasing but entirely unplanned effect of throwing his shadow into a silhouette, right in the empty frame behind.  I couldn’t have planned it.  I had been watching a very interesting video by Harry Borden, photographer, who explained that he felt his best ideas seemed to arise unbidden from his subconscious.  So perhaps that was partly the reason.

annotated Rich


The picture

This is what we ended up with:




I am fairly satisfied with the picture.  For the sitter there are a number of references included, none of which are accessible to the casual viewer.  The room light behind is a bit hot and could have benefitted from a grid rather than a snoot.  The area to the left, foreground is rather empty but perhaps that balances the shirt.  I have vowed to spend less time faffing and more time shooting so this photograph has had minimal (for me) editing.  Each time I see it I like it a bit more and I don’t even remember what I was thinking I’d left unmanipulated when I saved it.  The basic configuration echoes the Himmel photograph but without the original to compare you wouldn’t know.