This exhibition presents the work of both August Sander (1876 – 1964), known for his documents of German society during the 1920’s and 30’s and Weegee (1899 – 1968), a newspaper photographer best known for his portraits of 1930’s and 40’s New York.

Both the photographer’s images are taken from the Side Gallery archive in Newcastle which is run by the photography and film collective Amber. Amber has been running since 1977 and, although rooted in the collection and dissemination of social documentary of the North of England, holds much contemporary and historical work in this field from around the world.

The Sander collection held by Amber contains approximately 32 later prints of the photographer who assigned himself the project of making a photographic portrait survey of the German people. Sander approached this in almost a museological way, collecting ‘types’ of people to create a catalogue. Once he had collected an image of one ‘type’ (an urchin, brick-layer, society debutant etc) he would move on to the next, creating a typological catalogue and treating his human subjects as one would Butterflies, pinned and categorised. The original collection is held by Die Photographische Sammlung /SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, Germany and comprises 4,500 original prints and around 11,000 original negatives.

Included in the Bluecoat’s display are Angelhöriger der Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler’ (member of Hitler’s S.S. Bodyguard) from circa 1940. The image shows a serious and muscular young man, shoulders slightly hunched as if under the weight of his profession. His face is angled slightly away from the camera’s gaze, he looks above into the distance which echoes the nazi swastika on his sleeve, also angled slightly away – as if the camera can never capture the true face of the man or his politics. Also on show is Country Girls (1925) in which two blonde-haired girls in dark dresses stand side by side, their arms touching. They could be twins or sisters perhaps. The whiteness of their necks contrasting against the dark curve of their dress neckline make it seem as if they could be disembodied from their simple attire. Simply heads floating in the naturalistic space behind them. One of the most curious works from the Sander collection on display is The Widower (1914) which shows a plump and suited man standing in a well furnished living room or parlour. His arms are around two emaciated looking boys, their heads shaved. It is impossible not to make the connection, as a viewer today, to the boys and the concentration camps – their look is haunted and their physic speaks of some great oppression and calamity (although taken in 1914, year of the outbreak of WW1 – this connection is perhaps portentious but certainly not a correct one). The man by comparison is well fed and has an expression of quiet authority and power, although his arms appear gentle on the boys bodies the difference between the individual positions is clear and yet unclear. The narrative the photograph contains asks more questions than it answers. This is the strength of many of Sanders photographs or perhaps the strength of the individuals or society he tries to capture – it will never tell the whole story of these people, their lives or their situations. Only hint, and lead and pose possibilities.

Photographer Arthur Fellig earned his nickname ‘Weegee’ (the phonetic rendering of Ouija) due to the apparent speed of his arrival on the scene of fires, crimes and other photography worthy news events. In reality, Weegee's quick arrival at crime scenes were no coincidence, according to a self-written article in BOMB magazine in 1987, he would go down to the Manhattan Police Headquarters and listen for reports of crimes over the police radio or teletype.  Amber organised the first major UK tour of his work in the 1980’s which instigated a relationship with Weegee’s widow, Wilma Wilcox who subsequently donated a sizable collection of Weegee’s work to Amber’s archive.

Weegee’s style is necessarily dramatic, the images are of course meant for the newspaper and are taken in black and white, mostly of events or happenings rather than staged Sander shots. They retain a sense of hyper-realism, as if they had almost been staged for a film. The photograph Simply Add Boiling Water shows a fire in a New York building with a giant billboard advertising ‘Hygrade All Beef Frankfurters’. The firefighters are pumping water into the building which gushes out in clouds of white fog. In another photograph, Heatspell (1938), a mass of children sleep on a fire escape, the ground obliterated by the limbs of their bodies. Taken from the roof facing down into their small nest, the children’s bodies are in various stages of undress, combating the heat of the city around them, one girl’s nipple is exposed as she hugs herself, spooned by the white-t-shirted girl behind her. The image creates a sense that all over the city can be found micro warrens of humanity, it tells a story bigger than the subject it depicts. Through the very stories that Weegee would cover for his newspaper studies, his photographs also have a focus on events and people that exist on the margins of society, photographs by slightly later photographer such as Diane Arbus would go on in this legacy and take this subject as their central focus.

The exhibition at the Bluecoat displays the photographs by each photographer on separate walls, in series and small compositional groups. Each photographers work, although very different in subject matter and style allow for links between the staged and the documented, social history and the narrative ways in which the process of building and constructing a photograph can influence interpretation. The exhibition is a must see if you are in the North West this summer.

You can find more about Arthur Sander at the following links

You can find out more about Weegee at the following links

You can find out about both photographers collection held at Amber/Side collections by searching the catalogues here

AuthorSacha Waldron