The works of August Sander, Irving Penn and Zed Nelson have much in common; all portray people in a way that is focused on their profession, either through their outfits, captions or props. All photographers have managed to bring forward the inner strength and dignity of their sitters and isolated them from an environment that would show their social-economic position, leveling the hierarchical position society puts them in. The viewers are directed straight to the character and perseverance of the individuals.
Even though the portraits are static, formal and have a timeless quality to them, they all signify a response to a changing society. Sander categorizes his sitters based on profession and class and position in society, not by race. Even though the categories might seem discriminative in our days (especially the ‘woman’ category), because all sitters are photographed in the same approach, with respect and focus on the character of the sitter, there is no sense of different levels of respect or reverence for the different categories. This in contrast to the paradigm of the rising fascist movement in the days Sander worked on his project.
Nelson and Penn on the other hand, focus on trades and profession that are disappearing in modern society. Because of the way the categories are chosen and the people are photographed, these projects are not a protest against the changes, but focus on the people that are effected by them, the loss that is felt and the fact that dignity is derived from professions and practices that society is rejecting or letting go off.
“I preferred the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidents of his daily life, simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distill the image I wanted, and in the cold light of day would put t onto the film… Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them.” (Irvin Penn)
Penn says that through isolating the subject from its environment it is transformed. However, I believe that it is us viewers and photographers that are transformed when we are willing to see people for who they are, isolate our own prejudices and are really willing to take time to talk and shine a light on their dignity and strength. For me, this is where the power of these projects lie.