Identity and Place: Exercise 1.2 – Background as context

In this exercise the task was initially to look at the portraits of August Sander and write down my thoughts on his work.

I reviewed a number of his portraits and they all have a consistent style to them in terms of the subjects being posed against their background in a fairly flat way, they typically offer little in the way of the dynamic in terms of facial expression and the poses seem very forced even when they are meant to imply some kind of action.  The subjects seem to generally be in clothing which also reinforces their role in society, most typically their job.  Whether this is deliberate or not I think various – for his images that depict those who don’t “conform” to normal society I feel they look more likely to be what they normally wear, without any input from Sander’s.  There are a mixtures of background at play, from studio with very little, to those where the background does tell part of the story and that’s what I’ve focused on here, given the nature of this exercise.


In this image the chef is posed with the tools of his trade, the kitchen behind clearly placing him in his place of work.  As I’ve pointed out above, the pose is very forced, the expression fairly flat.  Another common element to many, but not all, of Sander’s portraits are the position of the subject straight-on the camera.


These three images all feature children of various social backgrounds positioned against physical backgrounds that reinforce their social position (as do their clothes).  The posing of the two boys in the left image and the boy and girl in the right image are also more formal, which I feel further reinforces the difference in social class Sander’s is illustrating.  While the boy and girl in the middle image are still clearly posed, it’s a less rigid position and implies some kind of activity is taking place beyond the portrait.


This final image to me is the most obvious use of background as context, a wheelchair-bound man positioned in front of a flight of stairs it seems unlikely he’d be able to climb in wheelchair.  Once more it’s a very statically posed portrait.


The second part of the exercise is to make a portrait of somebody I know, paying close attention to what is happening in the background.  I chose to take a portrait of my dad while he was gardening in the Lake District this weekend.


Here the trimmed hedge and leaves strewn around my dad provide the background context, further reinforced by the prop of the hedge trimmer.  As with the Sander images I instructed my dad not to smile and to keep a flat expression.  The clothing and wellingtons further reinforce the “gardening” context.

I didn’t intend this to be black and white, I experimented but lost the colour version thanks to sync problems with Lightroom Mobile.  I think the background was more obvious in colour; while it just about works in black and white I think I’d have had to be more selective with the background if I’d planned to present the final image in black and white.  Overall though it’s not an awful attempt at a Sander’s-inspired image.

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