FOR ONE TO SPEND any quality time with the lone and often solitary figures that populate August Sander’s photographs of mostly ordinary people in Emblems of the Passing World, and Adam Kirsch’s spare yet thunderously candid poems (each a solo voice in an otherwise complicated chorus) that complement them, one must possess more than passing curiosity. One must have the capacity to scrutinize and the ability to withstand scrutiny — because who exactly is being scrutinized here? Everyone from the photographer and his subjects, to the writer of these poems and finally to us, his readers; at every turn Kirsch’s apt and rigorous pronouncements implicate everyone and everything. Even a blind child’s spirit
… yearns for what it never sees,
The paradigm that vision is unable
To find and cling to, though it must exist,
To keep the visible from decomposing
Into a stuttered this and this and this.
Yet, despite the fact that vision breeds redundancy, the children in Sander’s rather unnerving photograph referred to here will never actually see anything. Only their hands repeat and repeat and repeat the intricacies of their lives as they pass.
The legacy of what is seen and what is left unseen, as reflected in the book’s title, Emblems of The Passing World, suggest that sight is at best an unreliable tool of identification, and that the world is so filled with unexpected signifiers of experience — good and bad, joyful and discouraging — that the best we can do is sift through the images and formulate some provisional identification with them. How the gaze is identified and then ultimately absorbed by the photographer and then by the viewer is crucial, Kirsch’s poems suggest. Kirsch attributes a fierce modernity to Sander’s gaze, at once familiar yet terrifying.
Eadweard Muybridge said of the art of photography:
We have become so accustomed to see [the galloping horse] in art that it imperceptibly dominated our understanding, and we think the representation to be unimpeachable, until we throw off all our preconceived impressions on one side, and seek the truth by independent observation from Nature herself.
This is certainly one way of describing Sander’s images. Connecting the legacy of the First World War with the underlying tensions of the Weimar Republic, these photographs capture a strained optimism often couched in an unwitting stare, as if the men and women in these images were at best reluctant heroes. Humanness persists, the sense that a future can be decided and must be forged no matter the circumstances. In the image titled simply “Girl,” for instance, a young woman stands holding a rose in what appears to be a paradisiacal-like garden, the presence of the bloom suggesting her own “blossoming” into sexuality and adulthood, even though, as Kirsch tells us:
Yet the distracted way she holds the stem
And slightly fails to meet the viewer’s eye
Suggest she hopes she’ll be as different from
Those icons of contented chastity
As their high hair and petticoats from her
Unpainted face and military blouse […]
What makes this image and this poem so effectively evocative is her gaze — the fact she refuses to meet the viewer’s eye directly, as though to say “If I cannot assert my individuality with my body, I will do so with my mind.” Given her time and place, she had no social identity except in her relation to men, and this is reflected in her posture and facial expression. There is also the sense here that she wants so much more than life will afford her. Again and again in Sander’s images we come up against what appears to be an insatiable hunger or longing — for experience, for individuality, for luck, or at the very least, for independence.
It is Kirsch’s great gift to afford these figures a momentary articulation of possibility, and this moment when the image is frozen in space and time is even more powerful and relevant perhaps than the future, which resists revelation. Not surprisingly, this moment is most intensely experienced in the images of the children, in which Kirsch recognizes the promise of change, even while knowing that new brands of cruelty, in the form of World War I and II, are right around the corner. Children stand seemingly hypnotized by the sheer weight of their lives in the strangely haunting image titled “Working-class Country Children, 1914.” Four children stand in a line, the two boys in the middle, flanked on either side by their younger sisters. The boys in particular appear particularly uncomfortable, their fingers tightening like claws at their belts and coats. It is their implicit responsibility to look after their younger siblings, yet they appear wan and weightless, “having been fed a vitaminless food,” as Kirsch tells us. One can only wonder what kinds of thoughts are going through their minds, and how they have managed to survive up to this point given their apparent frailty and unnerving paleness, as though they were ghosts, barely alive before the camera.
The fact that both the boys are wearing the same buttoned-up coats and dark trousers while the girls share the same patterned frocks only adds to the sense of impending doom, the Great War about to descend. The sameness of their clothes and appearance is a way to cling to that which is most familiar, yet will not hold.
No one tells the unknowing child in the image “Mother and Child,” dated 1926, Kirsch writes, that:
[…] he’s supposed to hold
His mother’s gaze contentedly,
Not with this disbelieving eye
And trembling mouth that seems about
To let a wail of terror out,
As though she were a stranger who
Had taken him from all he knew —
Youth is a central theme in this collection, and Kirsch, like Sander, has no particular sentimental attachment to it. “Fraternity Student,” from 1925 is less an image of the youthful hero setting out into the prime of his life than a document of failure — the failure of 19th-century education to teach these young men the true “rhetoric of self-discovery, Enlightenment, or becoming fully human,” wherein a man might understand the scope of his life is his alone to determine. Instead we see here yet another of life’s all-too-eager cadets, ill-prepared for the challenges they will one day face, yet more than ready to throw themselves onto the burning pyre: “Keeping quiet, following commands, / Stopping at nothing, knowing how to bleed.”
These people’s lives are ultimately and sadly determined by social standing, and while the images attest to a variety of human differences, both physical and otherwise, Kirsch, in his deft and unrelentingly spare language, reminds us that the people who populate the photographs were very much at the mercy of the class system into which they were born. This painful reality is palpable. Even when a skilled tradesman and his wife wear their finest for Sander’s camera, Kirsch reminds us:
They wear the costume of the bourgeoisie
Not as a boast about the climb they’ve made,
But as a token of the dignity they’ve longed for
Since the day that they were born.
One has the distinct sense, too, that they will die wanting. Several of Sander’s images more obviously accentuate the disparity between the haves and have-nots of this world, as in the image titled “Bricklayer,” where a handsome young man stands facing the camera with a pallet of heavy bricks stacked evenly across his back. As if in defiance of his lot in life, and as though his physical beauty could offset the reality of empty pockets and backbreaking labor, his gaze is strangely searing, and as wild and determined as that of a trapped animal staring down its captor.
Reduced to nothing but a quantity
Of muscle power, his defiant staring
Announcing his heroic certainty
That he can bear a life of only bearing.
We as readers, and as viewers of Sander’s images, want the best for these people, yet we understand what history will do to these faces and to the lives of so many heroic, and not so heroic, men and women. These photographs are a testament not so much to the perseverance of the human spirit as they are a visual accounting of the unknowingness inherent in the human condition. The Weimar Republic quickly led into the Second World War, and with that in mind, as we look at and read these photographs and these poems, we cannot have hope for these people, nor for ourselves, because history is bound to repeat itself.
Repetition is another underlying theme here, in fact, whether it be the repeating patterns of bricks in “The Bricklayer” or the repeated shapes of bicycles in “Three Farmers.” Repetition becomes its own language, by which these images are metaphorically constructed. For Kirsch, repetition is a device of remembrance, a way in which we can access these lives and associate them with our own.
The machine that drives this collection of poems is compassion. It’s not that we as readers desire to know these people as individuals, but that their lives, ordinary or not, are in direct conversation with our own. These are the lives from which our own lives have sprung, if not literally, than figuratively, since the lives that come before us provide us with an essential understanding of the joys and difficulties inherent in being alive. In reading these poems, we want to forge connections to the “Merchant’s Clerk,” who:
Seems not to believe in insignificance,
As if he knew we all will be redeemed
Or the “Farmer Sowing,” who
Casting the seed,
Changeless and inescapable
As human need.
The incontrovertible truth of our own passing haunts these images and Kirsch’s poems. The people in the photographs knew that they, like all those who had come before them, would one day die, and it is this knowledge that informs their half-smiles and strained glances toward the unknown. We bear witness to the complexities of their lives and of our own simultaneously:
As if there’s an alternative to losing,
As if our lives, after a century,
Will not become an equally depressing
Equally laughable case history
Death is ever-present on these pages, even if it is only as a momentary glimmer of darkness. If the faces here appear young and unaffected by grief or life experience, there is a stoicism that betrays an awareness of sadness yet to come. The fact that Kirsch has written these poems in verse also adds to their somberness. In the tradition of Keats, or even more so, William Butler Yeats, Kirsch extols the living through the dead. He anoints these difficult and often painful lives with dignity, creating a thread between the hope that has long since been extinguished from these people’s eyes with the hope still burning in our own. This is what binds us, both as readers and as viewers to their experience, and ultimately to our own facetted and fractured lives.
Nowhere in this collection is this felt more poignantly than in Sander’s final image of himself, labeled simply, “Photographer” (1925), wherein the artist counts himself among the masses of ordinary people whose lives he has made it his duty to record. We can see reflected in his eyes, Kirsch writes, the distinct possibility of betterment — that a man:
[…] cannot be known by how he looks,
Only by the infinity he sees.
Photography is by its very nature a vessel for constructed remembrances, and therefore the photographer is oddly out of synch with his own time and place. He is of the future and of the past simultaneously, yet he resides for us, resolute and unwavering, within the present moment. This discrepancy, this timelessness makes him difficult to pin down or trust completely. People once believed that photographs were dangerous because they had the ability to capture, to entrap someone’s soul, and while this notion perhaps seems ridiculous to us now, it does have some resonance — a photographic image retains the mark of a place and time as nothing else does. Paintings can represent any moment, real or imagined, whereas the photograph, no matter how interpretable, maintains its relation to its moment in ways that cannot be undone.
Sander soldiers forth as if he has a presentiment that his images will be burned into our collective cultural consciousness, and this is perhaps as close to hope as Sander is willing to venture. Kirsch, being sensitive to Sander’s specific, nuanced anti-sentimentalism, plays along beautifully. Both Sander and Kirsch arrive at the same conclusion regarding the human condition, however difficult to swallow — that we are all of us wrought with frailty, at the mercy of the arc of our lives, and that it is up to each of us as individuals to utilize our various gifts, talents and affinities and accept our limitations. Sander’s images serve as a strangely engaging roadmap to the possibilities that exist within any moment, and the voices that echo through Kirsch’s singular language serve to remind us of our own splendidly imperfect humanity.