Poet ponders what transpired after photographer’s shutter clicked

The 1913 photograph by August Sander on the cover of Adam Kirsch’s third book of poetry, “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press), shows two young women in high-necked blouses gazing at the camera over cups of morning coffee.
November 24, 2015

The 1913 photograph by August Sander on the cover of Adam Kirsch’s third book of poetry, “Emblems of the Passing World: Poems After Photographs by August Sander” (Other Press), shows two young women in high-necked blouses gazing at the camera over cups of morning coffee. One sits back, possibly suspicious of the photographer. The other, certainly the wilder of the two, leans her head on her hand, looking both bored and defiant. They are, according to Sander, “Small Town Women.” 

In Kirsch’s poem of the same name, when he writes about the two:

“In this small parlor where the window’s shut

Airtight and only beams of light convey

News of the world beyond the haven that

They are condemned to occupy all day”

–the news beyond this room is the approach of what will become known as the first world war. 

The women are in Germany, probably near Cologne, the home base of the photographer, who is also German. The photo is early work from what some see as a particularly German project, called “Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts” (“People of the 20th Century”), which Sander intended to be a comprehensive documentation of the German population, classified by social “type.” One thousand eight hundred of these portraits, made mostly in the 1920s and 1930s, survive. 

In 2004, Kirsch encountered 150 of them at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and began to imagine a project of poems about them. The pictures of ordinary German people surrounded by the emblems and implements of their everyday work lives, he says, “made the warp of history visible.”

Kirsch’s poems take the pictures’ subjects into the complex and troubled world that came after Sander’s shutter snapped. A baby in his flowered gown grows up to die in battle. A young butcher dresses up to have his picture taken, even

“Though in the closet hangs an apron flecked

With bits of brain beside rubber boots

Stained bloody brown from wading through the slick

That by the end of every workday coats

The killing floor he stands on.”  

(“The Butcher’s Apprentice,” 1911-14.) 

Kirsch is a poet and literary critic from a family of literary journalists (his father, Jonathan Kirsch, is an author and the Jewish Journal’s book editor and critic, and his grandfather, Robert, was an editor of the Los Angeles Times Book Review). Until recently, Adam Kirsch was a senior editor at the New Republic. Currently, he oversees a graduate program in Jewish studies at Columbia University, and, among his many responsibilities, he writes a weekly column for Tablet on studying Talmud. 

He spoke by phone from Berkeley, where he was preparing to give a talk on Jewish literature. After a technological glitch, when the audio recording of his conversation with the Journal vanished, Kirsch graciously agreed to write responses to the same questions. 

Jewish Journal: Some reviewers talk about the poems bringing the people in the pictures to life. Is that what you are doing here? How would you describe the relationship between the poems and the individuals in the photographs?

Adam Kirsch: Often I am thinking about what the future of these people’s lives would have been like. Because these photos were mostly taken in the 1920s and 1930s, there is a huge historical shadow looming over them, and it’s impossible to see these people without wondering what kind of role they would play in Nazi Germany and the second world war. With other photos, I’m reflecting on the kind of life that creates the person we are seeing — whether it is a beggar, as in “Match-seller,” or the contented middle-class women who are on the cover.

JJ: In our phone conversation, you talked about looking for humanity in the face of the enemy. You’re not just looking back in time but looking back at Germans as a Jew. How do you see the relationship between German history and these poems? 

AK: For me, the Holocaust is a constant subtext of the poems. The people in the photos are, broadly speaking, “the perpetrators.” However, by seeing them in these pictures as individuals, you begin to wonder about the connection between an individual and a mass phenomenon like Nazism, and about what culpability these specific people bear for what is about to happen. Some of them will be monsters, other bystanders; some might even have been dissidents. Is history something we create, or something that happens to us? At the same time, I chose not to write about Sander’s photos of actual Nazis in their uniforms because I didn’t feel up to addressing such people head-on in poetry.

JJ: The formal, carefully constructed poems in “Emblems” seem well matched to Sander’s portraits, which are are almost stark in their directness, but also intriguing. In your introduction to the poems, you write about this duality: “Nothing human can be so static. Inside the social function … inside the clothes and accoutrements … there is the face. “ The book consists of 46 photographs matched with 46 poems. How did you choose which of the pictures to write about? 

AK: I didn’t have a rule of thumb about which pictures to use; I looked through the catalog (which is massive, with about 600 photos) and waited to see if an idea or a possible approach came to me. I was looking for photos that gave rise to a further story or idea, where I felt that I could add something to the image.

JJ: How did you use the pictures while you were writing? 

AK: After studying the photo, I seldom went back to it while writing the poem; I didn’t want to actually describe the picture closely, but to take it as inspiration for something new. 

JJ: You said some didn’t work out. Looking back, do you have thoughts about why? Was any part of the project particularly a struggle? 

AK: Sometimes there were poems I couldn’t bring together, or that once finished struck me as not interesting enough. I don’t think I could name a common theme, though. … I had no certainty while I was writing that I would actually be able to publish a book with the photos — I was extremely fortunate that Other Press wanted to commit to producing this kind of a book, and that the August Sander Archive was willing to work with us to make it happen.

JJ: Your poems are interested in the question of how others see us and what of us can be seen. You talked about issues of complicity and what we 21st-century Americans might be seen as complicit in, viewed 50 years from now. How aware do you feel the people in the photographs are of their place in history? 

AK: One thing these photos show, for me, is how much of fate is out of our hands, a matter of chronology and demography. In a photo of a baby boy born in 1920, you know that he will grow up to be in the Hitler Youth and to fight in the German army during World War II — maybe much worse. Yet, of course, he didn’t choose to be born in that time and place; his fate was generational. Sander’s photos raise the dilemma of how we feel free, in our individual lives, yet [which] are actually determined to a great extent by history and circumstance. That conflict is one of the themes of the poems.

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