I came across this photo on Tumblr recently and it reminded me of an old acquaintance that I had with John Berger – in print of course. I was an undergraduate student trying to come to terms with the ‘significance’ of the ‘suit’ in this photo.
Young Farmers was taken by August Sander in 1914 using a large format, glass plate camera with a long exposure time, a legacy of earlier formalised studio portraiture and all that that implied. It was the sixth plate in Sander’s portrait photobook Face of Our Time, published in 1929. It also appears in the first volume of Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century, a photographic index of the German population based on distinct social ‘types’.
John Berger ‘the Marxist art critic’ wrote an essay about the photo in which he stated: ‘The date is 1914. The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countryside. Twenty or 30 years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford.’ (Berger, The Suit and the Photograph, 1980, p.30.).
Berger suggests that the tree lads are deliberately playing with the viewers expectations of the peasant ‘type’ by adopting the stance and manner of urban ‘types’, the cigarette being especially significant in this regard (adapted from text on the Tate website).
Berger may have overstated it a little, in an Irish context anyhow. John Millington Synge took this photograph of Mairtín Mac Donnchadha in 1898, a mere 16 years before Young Farmers. Mac Donnchadha features prominently in ‘The Aran Islands’ (1907), Synges account of life on the islands. In the book Mac Donnchadha is called ‘Michael’ and is portrayed as a model of the primitive peasant ‘type’ found in Aran.
Justin Carville (Photography and Ireland), in a reprise of Berger’s earlier article, wrote in the(Irish Journal of Anthropology (reference below) about Synge’s account of taking the photograph. Mairtín / Michael wanted to wear his suit, his Sunday clothes from Galway rather than the homespuns that he was photographed in. He wanted to distance himself from the ‘primitive life of the islands.’ This was evidence, according to Carville, that the islanders were ‘becoming increasingly aware of the production of their identity through the photographic image.’ In other words they understood the significance of the suit.
It seems they weren’t alone, judging by the studio portraits used by Synge (right) and Sander. At the time Synge was living in Paris on an annual allowance of £40 plus a new suit, courtesy of his landowning family. Synge, and others like, him were known to the islanders as ‘lucht na cultacha deasa,’ the people with the nice suits.
Ref: “My Wallet of Photographs”: Photography, Ethnography and Visual Culture in J.M. Synge’s Aran Islands” Irish Journal of Anthropology Vol. 10 no. 1. (2007): 5-11.