Yesterday’s Everyday and the Depiction of Work: August Sander, Walker Evans, Allan Sekula

Sergio Mah, ed, The Everyday, PhotoEspana, 2009

Yesterday’s everyday and the Depiction of Work

by David Campany

Commissioned for the book The Everyday, edited by Sergio Mah, PhotoEspana, Madrid 2009.

A few years ago I was invited to give a talk at Central Saint Martin’s School of Art in London. I don’t remember the theme of my talk that day but I do remember I arrived at the school a little early so I went to the student library. Browsing the shelves my eye was caught by a very worn copy of Citizens of the Twentieth Century, the grand opus of August Sander’s inter-war portrait photographs of German ‘working types’, published posthumously in 1986.[i] Saint Martin’s has many art and design programmes but at the time it had no specific photography course, although it is a medium used by all the students in one form or another. The Sander book was obviously well used. It had been repaired twice at least and had dozens of date stamps on its record card indicating it had been borrowed many times over the years. It goes without saying that Sander is an important figure in the history of photography and the history of inter-war Germany, and of course his work looms large for many contemporary photographers. But who at this School was so interested in his work? I asked a librarian. The book had been borrowed most often by fashion students.

I was surprised, then slightly embarrassed at my surprise. Why should this be so unexpected? After all, Sander’s work, like that of Eugène Atget and Walker Evans (who also made portraits of ‘working types’) is endlessly discussed and theorised in ‘photography circles’ because of its richness, its ambiguity, its potential for meaning. As such it is bound to lend itself to a great range of interests, far beyond the purview of Photography with a capital ‘P’. Fashion students have as much of a claim on the work of Sander as anyone. Indeed they may have been alerted to Sander’s work by Wim Wenders’ film Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), in which the fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto talks of how Sander’s photographs were a great influence on him. But could we ever know exactly what such a student is getting from the images? It may be information about how Germans dressed between the wars but it may be other things; perhaps things to do with the history of gesture and bodies, or the appearance of fabric when photographed in black and white.

August Sander Antlitz der Zeit cover

In 1929 Sander published a sample of his portraits as the book Antlitz der Zeit [The Face of Our Time]. One can imagine German audiences of 1929 measuring the images against their own experiences, their own conception of themselves in that complex historical moment. Sander’s work was a contribution, perhaps even an intervention into the conflicted idea of modern European or national identity. Of course, as time passes the images cannot be measured against experience so readily but can become a substitute for it. They no longer contribute to an understanding of a present and are instead slipped into the role of stand-in for the past.  This historical and semantic shift is what Jean-François Lyotard had in mind when he spoke of the construction of the ‘reality’ of the past: “Reality succumbs to this reversal: it was the given described by the phrase, it became the archive from which are drawn documents or examples that validate the description.” [ii]

wings of desire 1

wings of desire 2

wings of desire 5

Frames from the film Wings of Desire (Wim Wenders, 1987)

If they live on, photographs have the potential to acquire far more authority in posterity than they ever had in their own lifetime and it is often difficult to recover the circumstances of their first appearance. But it can happen. Sander’s Citizens of the Twentieth Century appears in Wings of Desire (1987), the film Wim Wenders made just before his Yamamoto film. Two angels are wandering the divided city of Berlin. Unseen by the living they watch as the citizens try to go about their lives, caught as they are between the upheavals of the past and the uncertainty of the future. In the grand Staatsbibliothek an old man is seated at a reading desk looking through the book, an angel at his side. The man is old enough to have been one of the three young farmers on their way to a dance in 1914, who can be seen in the famous image reproduced on the book’s cover.  As he browses the pages he ruminates on the nature of history and his own life, and we are given to see Sander’s project not as an uncomplicated historical record but as a set of images to be read in dialogue with their own time and their own people, to be measured against their experience. “What is wrong with peace that its inspiration doesn’t endure and that its story is hardly told?” the man asks himself. Wenders cuts briefly to old newsreel footage of the human carnage left by a wartime bombing raid. Over time the generations caught up in the war are dying out and direct experience of the inter-war period has all but disappeared. For younger people who gaze upon them now Sander’s images are perhaps a definitive record of the period and of ‘the way things were’. But in this brief and simple scene, of a man weighing the pictures against his own history, something of the provisional nature of Sander’s project is permitted to resurface.

It is with this in mind that I would like to say a few things about a piece of work which has fascinated me for a number of years. It is Allan Sekula’s Untitled Slide Sequence (1972). I saw it first in reproduction in the 1980s. The twenty-five black and white ‘slides’ were printed on consecutive pages of October, the journal of art criticism and theory. It was only in 2001, almost thirty years after it was made that I saw it ‘properly’, installed as part of Oxford’s Museum of Modern Art show Open City: Street Photographs Since 1950. So I never saw it as a contemporary work ‘in its own moment’, so to speak. I have not seen it since and this is how I remember it: in a dark space slides were shown sequentially at regular intervals on a single screen, interrupted by the black gaps so characteristic of slide carousel projection. They were monochrome 35mm reportage-looking ‘snapshots’ of workers leaving a factory.[iii]


Allan Sekula, image from Untitled Slide Sequence, 1972. End of day shift. General Dynamics Convair Division aerospace factory. San Diego California. 17 February 1972. 75 black and  white transparencies (three duplicate sets of 25) projected at 13-second intervals. 17 minutes 20 seconds, looped. Projection size 2m x 3m. Courtesy of the artist.

Several slides showed the workers looking at the camera with a mixture of boredom, fatigue and sometimes suspicion. Sekula seemed to have been standing in their way so they had to negotiate his presence. I remember feeling how this ‘exchange of looks’, for want of a better expression, seemed to foreground the camera and its operator.  Each image was on the screen long enough to encourage the viewer to begin to explore the frame and reflect on what it offered.  In fact I remember feeling the timing of the projection seemed calculated to frustrate both the comfortable ‘nowness’ of an elapsing cinematic present and the ‘pastness’ that defines all still photographs to some extent. It was neither fast enough nor slow enough. I cannot recall if that feeling was awkward or illuminating. It was probably both.

Louis Lumiere, Sortie d'usine (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). 1895. France. 35mm print, black and white, silent, approx. 45 sec

Louis Lumière, Sortie d’usine (Workers Leaving a Factory). 1895. France. 35mm print, black and white, silent, 45 seconds.

In 2001 I was watching a lot of early cinema, and Sekula’s images seemed to me to allude to the very first film shown in public, the Lumière brothers’ Workers Leaving a Factory (1895).[iv] In that film the workers are primarily women. They file out through the door of what is the Lumières’ own photographic business and onto the sidewalk. Just a few of them look at the camera, which seems as if it is on the other side of the street.  The subject matter and the means of representation are so intimately connected here. This group of workers, employed in the production of standard imaging equipment, are caught en masse in their everyday ritual by the mechanically repetitive rhythms of the filmic image. That cinema was inaugurated and set on its way by such a highly reflexive film seems bold and provocative even today.

The Lumières’ film stops after forty-five seconds when the short reel of celluloid runs out. Sekula’s slide sequence ends with a dissolute shot of feet, as if the photographer was either torn away from his task by force (perhaps he was trespassing) or had finished shooting and was simply firing the shutter to complete his roll of film. Sekula describes much of his work from the 1970s as ‘disassembled movies’ and Untitled Slide Sequence certainly fits that description.  He has talked of the influence of experimental documentary film on his work. Film has always had an experimental documentary tradition but by the 1970s photographic practices had become so entrenched and formulaic that the very idea of an experimental documentary photography seemed to many a contradiction in terms. [v] You could be an experimental photographer or a documentary photographer but not both. Sekula’s whole oeuvre strikes me as exemplary in its refusal to accept that simplistic reduction. Untitled Slide Sequence both documents workers leaving a factory while also documenting the act of making such documents. Its strategy is up-front and anti-illusionistic. There is no pretence to neutrality here, and no pretence to totality either. For example when the workers look into Sekula’s camera, we cannot tell if they are quick glances or longer stares because still photographs have few ways of indicating whether the human expressions they capture last longer than the length of the shutter speed. These are ‘fragmentary and incomplete utterances’ to use one of Sekula’s own descriptions of the photographic image, and he has the good sense to make no more or less of them than that.

Walker Evans, Labor Anonymous, Fortune magazine, November 1946

Walker Evans, ‘Labor Anonymous’, Fortune magazine, November 1946.

Walker Evans was an experimental documentary photographer but to really grasp what that means one would have to look at how he used the printed page. In November 1946, he published Labor Anonymous in Fortune magazine. It was a double spread of eleven photographs. At first glance it looks like a set of serial portraits taken surreptitiously of anonymous workers leaving a factory. That is how the images are usually presented when recycled in exhibitions and monographic books.  But in this spread there are telling details with which Evans deliberately complicates such a reading. His accompanying  paragraph of text makes no reference to the end of a working shift. It is in fact subtitled ‘On a Saturday Afternoon in downtown Detroit’, suggesting this might not be a day of work at all, even if this is one of America’s foremost industrial cities. In addition Evans’s words remind the reader that there is no physical consistency here: laborers cannot be visually stereotyped, neither in appearance nor disposition, nor dress: “His features tend now toward the peasant and now the patrician. His hat is sometimes a hat, and sometimes he has molded it into a sort of defiant gesture.” He concludes: “When editorialists lump them as “labor” these laborers can no doubt laugh that one off.” It is an obvious point but it is easily forgotten: a person cannot be anonymous in and of themselves. They are only anonymous to, or in the eyes of an other. The title Labor Anonymous is thus revealed to be at least partly ironic and even critical of the assumptions of the magazine’s readership. Looking again at the photos we see they are not entirely serial (even though this was about as serial as Evans’ work got). In the first, a man in overalls seems to look directly at the photographer. The brim of his hat casts a heavy shadow over his eyes, giving the impression that he sees the photographer without revealing himself. It undercuts the illusion of the unseen observer and I sense Evans placed this image first in order to suggest that the shots that follow should not be taken ‘at face value’. The final photo shows a man and a woman together as a couple, complicating any simple distinction between ‘labor relations’ and ‘sexual relations’. All this in a single spread!

The Lumières’ workers leaving their factory; Sander’s catalogue of social types; Evans’ sequence of laborers; Sekula’s sequence of laborers. In all these projects connections are made between the seriality of manual work, the seriality of the means of representation and those particular experiences of the everyday that characterise modern life. It seems clear enough that what has come to be called ‘the everyday’ in current critical parlance is intimately bound up with notions of alienation and repetition both in work and leisure; with over-familiarity and an often fatalistic sense that life as it has come to be organised is inevitable (and that only its estrangement by art or literature can make it endurable). But grouping these works together we may be reminded that nothing will last forever, not even the everyday.


First published in Sergio Mah, ed, La Cotidiano / The Everyday, PhotoEspana, Madrid, 2009.

In memory of Allan Sekula (1951-2013).


[i] Gunther Sander, ed., August Sander. Citizens of the Twentieth Century (MIT Press, 1986). It is the album Sander himself never managed to publish in his own lifetime, due to the intervention of the war and the confiscation of his work by the Nazis.

[ii] Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Differend: Phrases in Dispute (Minneapolis, 1988) p. 41

[iii] Being a photographer myself, I noted how unusual it was to see black and white slides of that era, since there was at that time no monochrome transparency film. I presumed Sekula had made his transparencies from black and white prints.

[iv] Given the potential interest of Sander’s photography to fashion, I note that on the website of the International Movie Database, the synopsis for the Lumières’ Workers Leaving a Factory remarks that “the film would be of virtually no interest (except to students of late 19th century clothing) were it not for the fact that it was the first film ever to be projected to a paying audience.”

[v]Sekula was looking to the experimental documentary films of Chris Marker, Fernando Solanas, Jean-Luc Godard and Jean Rouch. See Benjamin Buchloh’s conversation with the artist in Sabine Breitwieser (ed), Allan Sekula: Performance Under Working Conditions, Generali Foundation, (Wien, 2003) pp. 20-55.

  • Copyright © 2024