An Esoteric Anthropometry: The ‘Volksköpfe’ Photographs of Hans Saebens and their place in ‘Heimat’ Photography

Christopher Webster

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Hans Wilhelm Ludwig Saebens (born Bremen 1895, died Worpswede 1969) was a German painter, graphic artist and photographer who specialized in photographs of Northern Germany. After taking up photography in circa 1930, Saebens quickly earned a reputation as a highly skilled recorder of the landscape and the portrait (especially of the working people) of the north. Like many of his contemporaries who focused on the landscape and the peasant, Saebens’ work was regarded by the National Socialist political establishment as a 'propaganda asset'. As is the case with many of his contemporaries, Saebens’ current ignominy in photo-history stems primarily from the fact that he continued to carve out a successful career for himself during the Third Reich. During recent research at the Hans Saebens archive (Worpswede), I came across a collection of 29 carefully annotated envelopes filled with negatives made between circa 1938 and 1945. Many of the envelopes are also titled Volksköpfe or simply Köpfe. The images themselves are striking headshots of a variety of people, from carpenter to milkmaid, whaler to farmer’s daughter. The paper discusses the use of the esoteric paradigm of physiognomy and its relationship to racial anthropology and ideology during the National Socialist era.
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