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This photograph of young farmers on their way to a dance was taken in Germany in 1914 by August Sander. Except they weren't farmers. And the dance they were on their way to was World War I. To learn more about Sun Basket, go to

Guest host John Green delves into the real story behind this iconic photograph.

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The photographer August Sander called this famous picture "Young Farmers, 1914".  Sander actually took many pictures of young farmers.  This one is called "Young Farmers" as is this one.  For his massive, never-finished project, People of the 20th Century, Sanders sought to photograph all sorts of people in Germany, from aristocrats to circus performers to soldiers.  While many of these portraits are still widely shared today, these young farmers are probably the best known.

The picture is often called "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance", which is also the title of a Richard Powers novel inspired by the photograph, but the truth of this picture turns out to be complicated.  For starters, the three farmers weren't farmers.

There's a lot to love about this picture.  The farmers' feet are in the mud, but their heads are in the sky, which is not a bad metaphor for being 20.  Their expressions capture the way you feel when you're with your best friends in your nicest clothes and speaking of the clothes, they're part of what makes this picture fascinating.  The art critic John Berger wrote, "The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countrside.  20 or 30 years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford."  

The landscape in the background might look as it had 100 or 500 years before, but industrialization combined with mass media like films and magazines meant that urban fashion was now available and attractive to rural people, and I love how they're looking over their shoulders as if they barely have time to pause for the camera before going toward the dance and the rest of their lives, but there's also tension in the picture.  The farmers dandy-like poses with cigarettes and jaunty canes are strangely incongruent with the pastoral landscape in the background.  Also, their heads are sort of being cut off by the horizon line, which turns out to be tragically resonant because when the picture was taken, of course, the three farmers were on their way to two dances.  The dance they knew about in a nearby village and the dance they didn't know about, World War I.

The picture was probably taken shortly before the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and within a few months, Germany would be at war and the same industrialization that made their suits possible would mass produce weapons far deadlier than any the world had ever seen and these young farmers would be on the front lines, or so we are left to presume.  It's a picture about not knowing, not knowing what's going to happen to you, to your friends, to the nation.  

Philip Roth called history "the relentless unforeseen".  He said that history is "where everything unexpected in its own time is chronicled on the page as inevitable," and in the faces of these young farmers, we glimpse how profoundly unexpected the coming horror really was, and we're reminded that there is also a horizon that we cannot see past.  We are forced to reckon with the possibility that our filtered and playful pictures may look different to people in a century.

"History is merely a list of surprises," Kurt Vonnegut wrote, "It can only prepare us to be surprised yet again."  So that's how I always read the picture.  The farmers were symbols of a precarious historical moment.  They were reminders that I, too, might be surprised by history, but it turns out, of course, that the boys were not mere symbols, but were in fact, human beings.  This is Otto Krieger, born in 1894.  He actually knew the photographer August Sander.  Sander had photographed Otto and his family back in 1911.  The negative of that picture was likely destroyed along with 30,000 other Sander negatives during World War II, but Krieger's family still has this copy of the picture.

As Sander probably knew, Otto Krieger was not a farmer.  He worked in a iron ore mine.  So did the boy in the middle, August Klein, whose family had also been photographed by Sander, and then we have Ewald Klein, who seems to me anyway the most nervous of the boys, with his tight lips and ramrod straight cane, he seems uncomfortable in front of the camera.  Ewald worked in the iron mine's office.  His godson would later say that Ewald didn't like to get his hands dirty.  My kinda guy.  

And so the young farmers were, in fact, two young miners and an office worker, which is to say that they were participants in the industrial economy.  In fact, the iron ore from the mine where they worked would go toward building weapons in the coming war.  They lived in a village of around 150 people in the (?~4:59) Mountains in Western Germany.  Back then, the village wasn't accessible by car, so to visit, Sander drove to the end of the road and then walked his camera equipment up the mountain for miles.  

Otto, August, and Ewald really were on their way to a dance, which was in a little town about a 45 minute walk away.  They probably walked along one of these paths, which are still there, by the way, and Sander likely knew their route in advance, so he was probably set up when the boys arrived.  They paused in front of the camera, turned their heads over their shoulders, and held still.  It was a long exposure.  Otto, hat cocked, cigarette in his lips, looking like the kind of trouble you wouldn't mind getting into.  August, handsome and confident, a little bit sleepy-eyed, and then there's anxious Ewald, hand tightly gripping his cane.

I know it's silly to make broad conclusions about real human beings from a single frame of their lives, but I can't help myself.  I look at those three boys and I see the devil may care glean in Otto's eyes and the cool, handsomeness of August and Ewald's nerves and then they turned away from the camera and kept walking.  I wonder if they had a good time.  How late they stayed out.  Whether they drank.  Who they danced with.  We know it was a Saturday in spring or early summer.  We know they were out of the mine, in the light, and we know that it must have been one of the last dances they attended together, because the other dance was coming fast.

Only a few months later, all three boys were called to serve in the German armed forces in World War I.  Otto and August were placed in the same regiment and sent to Belgium to fight.  In January of 1915, only a few months after the young farmers photo, August Klein sent home this picture from snowy Belgium, which has never been seen publicly before.  The boys look different now.  The future, which had been just over the horizon, has come into view.  The relentless unforeseen has been seen at last. 

But even then, August and Otto could not know, they couldn't know that August would be killed in the war that March, one of 20 million people to die in World War I.  Otto would be wounded twice, but survive the war.  Ewald, who was assigned to a different regiment, also seems to have been wounded, but eventually made it back to his tiny village where he lived to old age.  

Three mine workers on their way to a war, 1914.  Two will come home injured.  One will not come home at all.  August Klein was 22 years old when he died.  He was not a metaphor or a statistic.  He was, however briefly, a human being.

Photography does a lot of things for us.  It gives us glimpses into places far away and times long past.  It can help us to understand the world.  It can make us feel like we've seen things we'll never really see or known people will never really meet, but a picture is not a life.  The young farmers photograph is about what those boys don't know, but it is also about what we don't know and a reminder of what pictures cannot show us.

This video would not have been possible without the reporting of Reinhardt-Pabst, the support of Katie (?~8:30), and the dogged sleuthing of Tuataria, an extraordinary community of problem solvers.  Thanks also to Rosianna Halse-Rojas and Sarah Green for their help searching for the young farmers, and thanks, as always, to the Patrons of The Art Assignment, including Vincent Apa, who make it all possible.

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