When I first saw the photograph, Peasant Children, Westerwald by August Sander, I couldn’t peel my eyes away; it was compelling because of Sanders’ unique depiction of a sister and a brother. On the one hand, it was somewhat typical of Sanders work, most notably in their formal frontal gaze, similar to the images he made cataloging the German people in his opus, Faces of a Nation. But Peasant Children was unusual in its portrayal of the sister and brother, the former holding a flowered ball in her hand and the latter posing next to a burly dog, somewhat indicative of their gender rather than their physiognomy. They looked like specimens floating in darkness in an archeological museum or an illustration in a book on phrenology.
It reminded me of a photograph I had seen years before by Diane Arbus. Identical Twins, Roselle, NJ. Both pictures ask us to recognize the similarities of the siblings, particularly in their faces, indicating the familial relationship. But like Arbus, Sander also calls attention to the way in which they are photographed, emphasizing their differences and their individuality despite their relationship. He accomplishes this by placing each of the siblings on either side of the shallow wall the resides between them, at once placing them in their own realm, and at the same time connecting them in an inherent diptych.
The wall between the brother and sister functions in a similar manner as the arms of the twins in the Arbus photograph, connecting them but separating them. When I first viewed the Arbus image I was taken by their seemingly identical visages, but on closer inspection, recognized how they different they were. Their separateness and their singularity revealed itself to me – through the shape of their heads, their hair, the down-turned mouth and sad eyes of the twin on the left and the smiling mouth and eyes of the twin on the right, as well as through the very small details that are different in their clothing – the collars of the dresses, the stockings, etc..
Sander employed physical closeness in his photographs of family, siblings, close friends and similar subjects. No other picture, however, exhibits such an intentional fracture in the relationship of the subjects and in the singularity of the image – this really is two photographs combined. Was it that their eyes and other features were so nearly identical that the wall was necessary for the viewer to consider them separately? Or was this really how they existed in the world within their family?
This photograph of the brother and sister seems to place them in a void – a blackness that causes tension in contemplating their situation in life. Why are they not posed in front of an idyllic landscape or a building or in a town or street that would cause them to be grounded in the world. They truly seem to float out of darkness and their cautious and apprehensive gazes only draws attention to their uneasiness. But is this uneasiness about being photographed by someone unfamiliar, a stranger? Their eyes don’t look at the photographer – and therefore at us – they are turned slightly to their right as if they are being directed/controlled by another. This causes us, the viewer, to become slightly concerned and undoubtedly incapable of becoming involved in them or their situation. We do not consider their lives, but only as they exist in the photograph.
The Arbus photograph, on the other hand, allows us to become engaged in the identical twins’ personalities and character – we feel and empathize with the sadness of the twin on the left and the coyness of the twin on the right. Does this say as much about us as it does about the photographer? Consider also the rigidness in the poses of the Sander siblings and the relaxed familiarity of the Arbus twins. Does it say even more about those who cared for the children?