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Last sync:2023-01-16 04:30
In which John discusses history, war, the German photographer August Sanders, and his famous picture "Young Farmers," also known as "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance, 1914."

This photograph inspired Richard Powers' highly recommended first novel "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance." You can also learn more about it from the Getty: or from the Tate:

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Good Morning Hank, It's Monday.

I spent much of this weekend in New York's Central Park, and for some reason I kept thinking of my favorite photograph. So there was this German photographer, August Sander, who's famous for his massive, never-finished series "People of the 20th Century" in which he took pictures of everyone from bricklayers to circus performers to famous composers. Along the way he also took my favorite picture - this one - which is sometimes known as "Three farmers on their way to a dance - 1914".

There's a lot I like about this picture. I like how the farmer's heads are cut off by the horizon. I like how their faces are in the sky but their feet are in the mud, and I like what the photograph tells us about class and history; that by 1914 mass production meant that these young farmers could afford suits and fancy hats and canes. For the first time in history, European peasants in the countryside could dress like, or almost like, urban professionals. But then again they are still walking instead of driving in a car. These are young men on the cusp of what I think of as the contemporary world and I like how they're looking over their shoulders as if they can only briefly pause for the camera before they head off to their futures - to the dance.

It was the middle of 1914 and these three farmers were, of course, on their way to two dances - the one they knew about, and World War One.

These men very likely ended up fighting in that war, and they may well have been among the 17-million people who died in it. And the very same industrial manufacturing innovations that made their clothes affordable, created the bullets and machine guns that made WWI so lethal.

The three people in this photograph are living in the middle of history. Like, to us, the dance they were walking towards seems inevitable but to see their faces is to know that it wasn't. That history is choices we -collectively- make about how to look at the world and how to respond to what we see. These three young farmers, walking along a road in the German Vestervald 101 years ago remind me that I am also in the middle of history and that how I imagine the world, and the people in it, really matters.

Someone once told me that "photographs are just light and time" and in this picture, August Sander captured a helluva light and a helluva time.

I pray we never see the likes of it again.

Hank, I'll see you tomorrow.