Occasional musings, Geistesblitze, photos, drawings etc. by a "resident alien", who has landed on American soil from a far-away planet called "Germany".

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Word of the Month: Der Winkeladvokat

Homage to August Sander

Word of the Month: Index

Winkel is the German word for 'angle' or 'corner', and Advokat is an old-fashioned term for an attorney or counselor (replaced in modern German usage by Anwalt). In its original meaning, a Winkeladvokat was someone who gave legal advice 'out of a corner', that is, without proper training and certainly without a license. Nowadays, the term refers to an inept or unscrupulous attorney. It's similar to English 'shyster', but I have the sense that a Winkeladvokat is distinguished more by ineptitude than questionable morals, while a shyster can be extremely clever.

My original motivation for selecting the present WoM was to use it as an excuse for showing a portrait labelled 'Winkeladvokat' by August Sander (1876-1964), perhaps the greatest German photographer of the first half of the 20th century. He spent most of his career building a collection of portraits, which he called Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century). Each image in the collection represents a person identified by his or her profession or status (the farmer, the brick layer, the tramp); that is, in Sander's grand design, the subjects are seen less as individuals than representatives of the role they play in society. But Sanders treated his sitters with great respect—he let them pose however they wished, and as a result, they speak to us very much as individuals. It is this tension between role and individuality that intrigues Sander fans like me.

Sander's portrait of a Winkeladvokat stands out, first of all, because of its caption—it's the only one in his entire work, as far as I can see, that is not purely descriptive. It may be that at the time, being called a Winkeladvokat was less derogatory—I don't know. But the portrait is memorable not only because of its caption. The subject sits at a table surrounded by his tools—pencil, paper, and, prominently, rubber stamps, and he presides over his world with a suppressed smirk as if he wanted to say, "Yes, I'm a Winkeladvokat—so sue me!" And that's why I am so fond of the photo.

Alas, I am not allowed to show the portrait here for copyright reasons. I drew a caricature instead and hope readers feel motivated to google Sander and his Winkeladvokat.


Heika said...

Well you certainly succeeded in your goal with me. I'm definitely going to look up Sander's work. Do you know much about his life, for example, how he came to be a photographer?

Ulrich said...

Thanks, Heika! And yes, I know quite a lot about his life—too much, in fact, for a single comment. I have to stick with a few basic facts.

He was born in the Westerwald, a mountainous region east of Cologne. Still in his teens, he discovered his interest in photography when he made the acquaintance of a professional photographer. A gift from an uncle allowed him to buy his first camera.

In 1929, he published Antlitz der Zeit (Face of the Times), a collection of 60 portraits that can be viewed as preview for 'People of the 20th Century'. The response was quite positive, especially by liberal and left-leaning critics (like Walter Benjamin). But the Nazis disliked it intensely—the collection overall did not conform to their idea of what an Aryan people should look like and portraits of 'Revolutionaries' or a 'Communist Leader' were altogether unacceptable. When they came to power, they had all remaining copies confiscated and the printer's blocks destroyed.

Sanders was never able to complete his grand design. There are obvious gaps, and he never decided on a definite arrangement for the available material. But it's enough to establish him as one of the greats of 20th century photography.