Synge and Sander, and the Significance of the Suit

Young Farmers 1914, printed 1996 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

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).

 

My wallet of photographs ; the collected photographs of J.M. Synge

 

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.

 

August Sander 1906, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964

 

 

 

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.

SEVEN SECONDS …

Portrait picture of Ciarán Walsh, www.curator.ie, which was taken during a 1 day Wet Plate Collodion workshop with Monika Fabijanczyk

Ciarán Walsh, Self portrait, Ambrotype, 2014.

What does it take to take a photograph these days? 4 billion photos a day are uploaded unto Facebook (grandparents), Snapchat (Lovers), Twitter (Networkers/chatters) and Instagram (wannabe photographers) – photographs taken in a flash and flashed over in a second.

Recently I did a workshop with Monica Zabinczyck in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin using a process that dates from the 1850s which is gaining popularity among younger photographers who want to go back into the darkroom and experience the mystery, alchemy and magic of turning silver salts black and watching an image appear out of the ether! 7 to 30 second exposures and silvery plate glass pictures to hold.

I participated in the workshop as part of his research for ‘Tríd an Lionsa/ Through the Lens‘ a six part TV documentary on photography in Ireland for `Sibéal Teo, Dingle, commissioned by TG4 with funding from the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland).

The workshop was intensive and a little challenging. Its 25 years since I had been in a darkroom but Monika took each of us through the process, calmly and efficiently.   Large format (4×5 inches) cameras were used with artificial and natural light to take portrait and still life shot varying from 7 to 50 second exposures, Some worked, some didn’t but The excitement of seeing an image develop in the darkroom was something I had forgotten about and it was a tremendous surprise on the day. The complexity of the chemical processes and, the speed required to ‘get’ the image before the plate dries or overdevelops really makes one reconsider the work done by Timothy O’Sullivan and other photographers during the American Civil War.

These photographs shows Monika Fabijanczyk demonstrating the wet collodion process during a one day workshop in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin. Ciarán Walsh / Ballymaclinton participated in the workshop as part of his research into a six part TV documentary on photography in Ireland for `Sibéal Teo, Dingle, commissioned by TG4 with funding from the BAI (Broadcasting Authority of Ireland).

Monika Fabijanczyk demonstrating the wet collodion process during a one day workshop in the Gallery of Photography in Dublin.

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