Images to exercise ourselves: Morphology between August Sander’s photographs and Gerhard Richter’s Atlas

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In Little History of Photography (1931), while mentioning the photographic portraits of Germans published by August Sander in 1929 under the title of The Face of the Time [Antlitz der Zeit], Walter Benjamin alludes to Goethe by saying that the "photographer did not approach this enormous undertaking as a scholar, or with the advice of ethnographers and sociologists, but, as the publisher says, 'from direct observation'. It was assuredly a very impartial, indeed bold sort of observation, but delicate too, very much in the spirit of Goethe’s remark: 'There is a delicate empiricism which so intimately involves itself with the object that it becomes true theory'." If one disregards the often peculiar way Benjamin incorporates quotations in his texts, not so much as a justification or support of an authority on the subject, but as a clue that allows a new path to be followed, one may perhaps overlook the fecundity of this quotation and of the entire section on Sander’s photographs. The aim of this paper is precisely to follow this clue through a path that will take us from Sander’s photographs – examined from the point of view of Goethe’s morphology and the way it influenced Walter Benjamin – to Gerhard Richter’s Atlas. At the same time, we will have in our mind an advice expressed by Benjamin that found its roots in Goethe and echoes in Richter’s virulent and extreme gestures, when Benjamin describes Sander’s work as, more than a picture book, “an atlas to exercise ourselves”.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationMorphology
Subtitle of host publicationQuestions on Method and Language
EditorsMaria Filomena Molder, Diana Soeiro, Nuno Fonseca Fonseca
Place of PublicationBern
PublisherPeter Lang
Number of pages22
ISBN (Print)978-3-0343-1376-6
Publication statusPublished - 2013


  • Photography
  • Exercise
  • Atlas
  • Morphology
  • Walter Benjamin
  • Goethe
  • August Sander
  • Gerhard Richter


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