Thursday, March 21, 2013


Bürgerkinder ("middle class children") photographed by August Sander in 1925.  

Adam Kirsch has for several years been writing a cycle of poems based on the portrait photographs of August Sander (1876-1964). The sonnet below appeared in the TLS a few months back, but I only just got around to reading it. Then I went looking for the photograph, as described – the child with the small bright medallion against the gay black dress. During an hour of online searching I came across dozens of other nameless German children from the 1920s preserved for posterity's gaze by Sander's camera, but none that corresponded to the particular child of the poem. The public databases of the International Center of Photography, the Getty, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York (all holders of large Sander collections) do not make available anything that conforms to the attributes of Adam Kirsch's happy and possibly smug little girl of 1926. Nor do any of the printed books of Sander photographs I paged through at the university library where I work. But there are bound to be bigger and better sources I have not seen. The photograph certainly exists. Sander took so many thousands.

The poet would have written something quite different about the small brother and sister above, if he had chosen them. 

Middle-Class Child, 1926
The rain of gifts in which the child has grown
Can be deduced from her small bright medallion,
Her brand-new shoes, her black dress gay with braid,
But most from the instinctive way she's laid
Her hands contentedly across her lap,
Confident she won't need to hit or grab
To get the good things life has promised her.
How could she know it's dangerous to wear
A smile so merry and self-satisfied,
When all her life has been arranged to hide
The possibility of nemesis
And put off the discovery of loss?
Who could rebuke her when she acts as if
She thought she were herself the greatest gift?