Having grown up in the Westerwald and speaking the local dialect, August Sander knew the land and its people well. In this picture he focuses his lens on three young farmers he probably encountered on one of his frequent Sunday cycling trips to the area. The men are caught in transit, their walk interrupted when they happen upon the itinerant photographer. Their identical dark suits, snappy hats, and walking sticks suggest that the desire of young people to dress alike is not new. The men are en route to a dance in a neighboring village, rural flaneurs on their way to meet the girls. As if arrested in mid-stride, they turn their heads to face the camera. Time and motion in this image seem strangely suspended, lending the scene an eerie, cinematographic quality that is quite different from the static portraits Sander had produced earlier. The picture overflows with descriptive information and narrative detail, yet it remains ambiguous and open to interpretation. What was the men's relationship to each other and to the photographer? What was the nature of their transaction?
It is unclear whether this is a commissioned portrait or whether Sander took the picture on his own initiative, discovering in the subject a deeper philosophical significance and artistic challenge. He may have sensed that the journey of the three men was also an allegorical one: from youth to adulthood, from country to city, from the familiar geography of the past to the
disjointed spaces of modernity—a whole generation of young, rural males caught in limbo. The realization that these are the men who would soon fight and die in the Great War imbues the scene with a sense of melancholy—a mournful foreshadowing that probably was not lost on Sander.
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), 20. ©2000, J. Paul Getty Trust.