In 1913 August Sander photographed the three children of the Gehlhausen family, owners of a guest house in Weissenbrüchen. The youngsters are depicted in the company of their dog and toys, facing the camera with deep, unbridled suspicion. A recent downpour has turned the dirt road on which they are standing into mud, making the outdoor session a particularly unappealing endeavor. The boys are dressed for the occasion in crisp, pin-striped navy costumes. Their baby sister, propped up in her wooden carriage, is fretfully hanging on to a doll. The boy on the right holds his whip like an alien implement, making no attempt to use it on the hobbyhorse in front of him.
Sander tightly framed the scene, lowering his camera and moving in closely on his subjects. Had he opened his lens a little further, it might have revealed an array of cajoling adults standing close by, pleading with the children to hold still and not spoil their spotless clothing. Only the dog, who guards the miserable trio with an impish smile, seems to be enjoying the experience.
Sander approached the scene before him like a true documentarian, humorously registering the youngsters' lackluster performance in front of his lens. It has been observed that the image is reminiscent of the popular painting The Hülsenbeck Children (1805) by the Romantic artist Philipp Otto Runge (1777-1810), in which the three subjects are represented at lively play in their garden. This photograph, however, is Runge's painting gone terribly wrong. Libertine playfulness gives way to a frightening display of Wilhelmine discipline—a subtle parody on Sander's part that was sure to amuse the sophisticated urban audience at which his larger project was directed.
Originally published in August Sander, In Focus: Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum by Claudia Bohn-Spector (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000), 24. ©2000, J. Paul Getty Trust.