…That virtue and the faculties within

Are vital, and that riches are akin

To fear, to change, to cowardice and death?

Wordsworth, 1803


Looking at him, one knows. We are eye to eye with the Modern Angel. Arms spread like wings, a keen sovereign eye.


Like a halo of light, circularly arranged stones on the shoulders encircle his countenance. In the history of painting angels lost more and more their feet and legs, hidden behind floating garments in order to increase their ethereal quality. Thus, it seems, the photographer roughly eliminated the contours of the body’s lower parts.




August Sander, The Laborer


This is striking. The maker – August Sander – is known to have never retouched his work. His other photographs show an edge and a straightforwardness with which these fading legs sharply contrast. Precisely the manner in which the halo of stones, together with the face, is caught by the photosensitive plate in all its detail, makes it all the more probable that the whole image was intentional.


The Laborer – a portrait of the worker as an angel. August Sander portrays, yet his portraits are not in the tradition of the western code of painting which demands that the image should express or represent the individuality or subjectivity of the human being depicted.


What is more, Sander’s pictures fulfill in optima forma the image function of all photography. A photo is intrinsically accidental, it can only ‘mean’ something when it puts on a mask. A true photograph has only meaning, in the pure sense of that word, when it does not represent this laborer, but the ‘essence’ of the laborer, or for that matter of the nature of the Anti-worker.




August Sander …  the Anti-worker


In La chambre claire Roland Barthes notes ‘that this photography of the mask is critical enough to disquiet us,.. yet too discreet to be able to function as effective social criticism’. Such pictures only become ‘critical’ for an observer, if he has already practiced such social criticism.


However, it can not be accidental that the Nazi’s censored Sanders’ work, it simply did not conform to their archetype of the German race. Only those photographers who gave celebrities a ‘personal radiation’, made it into Hitler’s German hall of… frame.


The Laborer has no personal radiation whatsoever. The picture rather evokes a comparison with icons. It is hard to withdraw oneself from the impression that we witness an image ‘of the deeper structure of human reality – the will and the endeavor to be God’, words with which Sartre once typified the essence of man. The desire for a vanishing of subject and object.


Or did Sander consider his photo a protest against the labor relations in 1928, the year when the picture was taken? Perhaps as a protest, in the vein of the Arts and Crafts Movement with its return to pre-industrial methods of work. Is it an essay in contrasting, in Sander’s own discreet manner, the type of the artisan with the mass-laborer at the conveyor-belt?


Or was Sanders conscious of the fact that his splendid mask, indeed, contains quite a portion of the ‘scientific management’ of Frank Bunker Gilbreth  – that comrade in arms of Fredric Winslow Taylor, who coined the notion of scientific labor analysis and the management based on it?


It was Gilbreth, who at the beginning of the 20th century did extensive research on adjustments to be made in scaffolding and in the manner in which the worker should transport bricks and apply mortar. All his inventions lead to an intensification as well as the transformation of what once had been mere artisans’ work into modern industrialized labor.


This superb halo of bricks, at the centre of which the both sovereign and anonymous eyes of the brick carrier observe us, seems to embody Gilbreth’s inventive research. The serialism of the stones refers to the serial character of the piling, transporting and laying of bricks on the modern building site.


[Translated from the introduction to Sierksma: Surveillance and Punishment – Labor Management between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism, 1991; Dutch title Toezicht en Taak. The book, alas, has not been translated]

If you like this piece, send it to friends or acqaintances


Author: rjsiersk

Sierksma was born in Friesland, a 'county' in the northern part of the Netherlands with its own language which he does not speak and with an obstinate population to which he both belongs and does not belong. A retired Professor of Social Philosophy and Aesthetics, as a Harkness fellow he taught at Rutgers and Berkeley Universities in the USA, and at GUAmsterdam and TUDelft in the Netherlands. In 1991 he was awarded his PhD from Leiden University on the subject of 'Surveillance and Task: Labour Discipline between Utilitarianism and Pragmatism'. His books include Minima Memoria (1993), Lost View (2002 with Jan van Geest), and Litter Scent (2013). He has published poems and articles in Te Elfder Ure, Nynade, Oasis and the Architectural Annual. Half the year he lives in Haarlem, the other half he spends in la France Profonde, living ‘in his own words’ as the house out there was bought with the winnings from his essay Eternal Sin, written for the ECI Essay Prize (1993). In this blog, Sierksma's Sequences, written in English, he is peeping round his own and other people’s perspectives. Not easily satisfied with answers nor with questions, he turns his wry wit to a number of philosophical and historical issues. His aim in writing: to make parts of the world light up in his perspective - not my will, thine! Not being a thief, he has no cook, one wife, some children, one lover and three cats.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s