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The Suit and the Photograph (1979) by John Berger

Young Farmers, 1914, August Sander.

Country Band, Seigerland, 1913, August Sander.

Stadtmissionare, 1931, August Sander.

In John Berger’s essay, The Suit and the Photograph, Berger examines Sanders famous photograph The Young Farmers (1914). Berger suggests that the status of these three individuals can be deduced from their clothes. He begins by explaining that the dark suit was still new too many people; and that these young men would probably have been just the second generation of country folk to be able to possess such clothes. Berger believes that the photograph suggests that these suits were not top quality and were not tailor fitted. From his examination he suggests that these young men were of the country peasant class. He suggests that the photo shows that their suits are ill fitting; they carry their stick like farming tools and their hands and shoulders suggest hard physical work. Their suits deform them. Wearing them, they look as though they were physically mis-shapen. A past style in clothes often looks absurd until it is re-incorporated into fashion. Indeed the economic logic of fashion depends on making the old-fashioned look absurd. But here we are not faced primarily with that kind of absurdity; here the clothes look less absurd, less “abnormal” than the men’s bodies which are in them. (p.35, Berger, 1980). Berger suggests that by covering the heads, one can see the poor quality of the suits and by covering their bodies, one can see county faces. To support this hypothesis, Berger refers us to two other photographs by Sander, the second picture is of a country band and here again Berger points to the ill fitting suits and their faces that suggest another group of country peasants. The last image is of four protestant missionaries and Berger writes that this photograph suggests that from the cut of their suits, this group is from a higher class. Their suits appear to be to a tailor fit, ‘They wear the suits rather than the suits wear them.’

Berger does not discuss the locations, but we can see from the first two photos that they were taken outdoors, the farmers are walking along a muddy road and the band stand on grass. The protestant missionaries are inside what appears to be a rather opulent room or hall. We already have pre-conceived ideas about these people simply by the locations we find them in. However, other clues support Berger, we can see the shoes look in better condition on the protestants, one of the young farmers has a cigarette hanging from his mouth that suggests a less refined individual and they hold their canes more consciously than a gentleman might. Perhaps the very fact that they are walking also implies a less affluent group of individuals. The use of the country band in one way supports Berger’s hypothesis and yet in another way does not. Our cultural education kicks in at this point, and we would guess without too close an examination of their suits, that as musician they are unlikely to be wealthy enough to have tailored suits, moreover, if they where, we would expect to see them standing on a stage or inside some well appointed lounge or hall.


Published by shauncn512659

Hi, I am an OCA student studying for an Art degree in Photography , my student number is 512659. My e-mail is:

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