Ruckenfigur Photo Book

EPSON scanner imageWorking on putting my ruckenfigur pictures into a book.  Includes: reviewing old files for pictures, see opposite; and writing some text, see below (comments welcome).

Photo: Paris 1988


Ruckenfigur – Rear View

The essence of an individual’s identity is in their face.  Our passports are nothing without our portraits; pictures of happy smiling faces chart our rites of passage through life.  We meet people ‘face to face’; some people are ‘two faced’; we ‘pull a face’, ‘put a good face on it’, are ‘afraid to lose face’; we try to ‘save face’ and ‘show a face’.  Our face is the key signifier of us as individuals.  Therefore to make pictures of people, portraits in both specific and more general senses, that do not show the subject’s face might be thought odd at best and perverse at worst .  Yet picturing the obverse, what has come to be called the ruckenfigur (literally ‘back figure’) of someone has been widely practiced in the visual arts and can yield its own meaning, both of the person and the context.

The Ruckenfigur in Painting

The rear view has a long history in Western art and is used in four frequently overlapping ways.

Giotto used turned or half turned foreground figures to frame and focus attention on the main subject, in Kiss of Judas (1304-06), Pentacost (1310-18) and Last Supper (1320-25).  It occours frequently in versions of nativity scenes, like Hendrik van Balen’s (1575-1632) Adoration of the Shepherds (??); and in St John the Baptist with Scribes and Pharasees by Bartolome Murillo (c. 1655) the huge ruckenfigur is as large as the Baptist.

The framing device and the ruckenfigur as subject occur frequently with the nude, where the rear view adds modesty to allegorical and classical subjects.  Examples include Apollo and Pan (c.1550) by Frans Floris, Venus and Adonis (1555-1560) by Titian and The Judgement of Paris by Hendrik van Balen.  The nude as ruckenfigur reaches its peak in Velazquez’s Venus at her Mirror (The Rokeby Venus) (c.1646).

These uses of the ruckenfigur overlap with its appearance in narrative paintings, often of historical subjects, that capture public or group events in which it appears natural that some figures will be viewed from behind.  Examples include The Siege of Troy – The Wooden Horse (c.1490-95) by Biagio di Antonio, Massacre of the Innocents (1519-20) by Luca Signorelli and St Bernardino Preaching in the Campo, Siena (1528) by Domenico Beccafumi. 

In contrast to these busy scenes, lone or isolated groups of figures also appear within open landscapes.  In 1435 Jan Van Eyck used two diminutive figures to lead the viewer’s eye into the distant town and landscape in the Madonna of Chancellor Rolin (1435).  This device was repeated by Roger van der Weyden in St. Luke Drawing the Virgin (1435-1440).  With the development of landscape painting in the following centuries the ruckenfigur emerged as part of the stock repertoire of ‘staffage’, a human figure in a natural scene, which might enhance the foreground of a panorama and shape the overall meaning of the scene.   The figure also establishes the scale of the landscape and says, ‘Look, this is worth seeing’, acting as a bridge between our world and the painted image.  A version of this shows an artist, who sits at the edge of the scene drawing the landscape we see, e.g. The Draughtsman (1640) by Allaert van Everdingen.  Variations on the ruckenfigur appear through the 17th and 18th centuries in the work of artists such as Johannes Vermeer, The Painting (1664-68), Pietro Longhi The Painter in his Studio (174?-44).  English examples from the early 19th century include John Sell Cotman’s Wherry at Anchor on Breydon Water (c.1810) and John Constable’s Hampstead Heath (c. 1820).

However, such figures are almost invariably coincidental, or at best supplementary, to the main subject of the picture.  Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), the greatest painter of the Romantic Movement in Germany, changed this by repeatedly using the ruckenfigur, making it central to the meaning of the work.  His strangely brooding scenes are peopled by individuals or groups of apparently lonely figures, often viewed as the traveller or halted wanderer. Over 30 years his oeuvre included, amongst others, Winter (1807-8), Monk by the Sea (1809-10), Winter Landscape (1811), Chasseur in the Forest (1813-14), Morning (Departure of Boats) (c.1816-18), Two Men Contemplating the Moon (c. 1817), Woman before the Setting Sun (c.1818), Women at the Sea (c. 1818), Wanderer above the Sea of Fog (c. 1818), Chalk Cliffs on Rungen (1818-19), On the Sailing-boat (1818-19), Two Men Contemplating the Moon (1819), Moonrise at Sea (c. 1821), Evening (c. 1821), Woman at the Window (1822), Augustus Bridge in Dresden (c. 1830), Flatlands on the Bay of Greifswald (c. 1832) and The Stages of Life (c. 1835).

Sometimes the figures are tiny, as in Evening and Monk by the Sea; others dominate the frame as in Woman at the Window and Wanderer above the Sea of Fog.  We cannot see the faces, they are anonymous; we cannot always see what the figure is looking at; we can only speculate on what they are thinking.  Is the halted traveller coming towards us and looking back or going away? Is he or she contemplating the infinite, a regretful past or an uncertain future?  Again we cannot be sure, but we know that they matter as a distinctive human presence in the landscape in ways that many earlier ruckenfigues do not.  Yet, with the exception of Woman at the Window and possibly Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, the figure is not the principal subject.

The way in which Friedrich uses the presence of the ruckenfigur affects fundamentally the form of the picture and the impression it creates.  The insertion of subordinate figures changes the meaning of the picture from landscape to allegory or history; a dominant figure gives it a documentary meaning.  The turned figure also imbues the picture with emotion, a sense of lonely melancholy and mystery; the figures inhabit places at once of both sublime nature and otherness, wherein reside unknowable threats and fears.  The figures are our uncertain selves, wanderers in a purgatorial life.

After Friedrich’s death his work went out of fashion and slipped into oblivion until the end of the 19th century, though he influenced the work of Arnold Bocklin; and his approach to the ruckenfigur was reflected in the work of painters from the Hudson River School, such as Jasper Cropsy and Albert Bierstadt.  However, in the decades following Friedrich’s death the visual arts grew more varied and new approaches developed in overlapping or concurrent phases with the old conventions increasingly rejected.  Artists might now paint pictures based on their own convictions, or on their own imaginations, or they could become advocates of pictures of real, everyday life.  The invention and growth of photography from 1839 was a significant influence bringing about this change.

No artist subsequently used the ruckenfigur as a key motif across a body of work, as Friedrich had, but the liberation of new visions for painters meant that the rear view of a figure was used more widely as a legitimate perspective to add a meaning to the work.  It would still be used as staffage and as a way of focusing attention on a central subject.  However, it might now be used as a central shape within the composition, as an element to add structure, to reveal (or hide) some aspect of the subject, or in the case of 19th century nudes to combine modesty with titillation in a prudish age.  Scenes of everyday life inevitably resulted in figures with their back to the viewer, as earlier artists had shown.  The figures generate a range of emotions – curiosity, pathos, tenderness, angst, joy and so on – but only rarely do they give the picture a Friedrichian sense of lonely melancholy.  They are flesh and blood people occupying a place in the world, not mere cyphers.  We notice and imagine stories and character from their shape, their size, their stance, their colour, their dress.

Examples of the ruckenfigur in its various painted forms over the past century and a half include, more or less randomly:

The Stone Breakers, Gustave Courbet (1849)

The Gleaners, Jean-Francois Millet (1857)

Rear View of Nude Woman, Auguste Renoir (1879)

The Tub, Edgar Degas (1886)

The Siesta, Paul Gauguin (1894)

The Fisherman, George Bellows (1917)

Plage au canot et a l’homme nu, Maurice Denis (1924)

La Reproduction Interdite, Rene Magritte (1937)

Gala de espaldas, Salvador Dali (1945)

Girl at Mirror, Norman Rockwell (1954)

Naked Man, Back View, Lucien Freud (1991)

The Connoisseur, Mike Newton (2012)

The Ruckenfigur in Photography

Various forms of the ruckenfigur occour early in photography as pioneers sought to explore the creative potential of the medium, for example Panorama of Santa Lucia, Naples (c. 1846) by Calvert Jones, The Great Chartist Meeting on Kennington Common (1849) by William Kilburn, Market Scene at the Port de l’Hotel de ville (1851) by Charles Negre and Fading Away (1858) by Henry Peach Robinson.  From early on it is apparent that there are two influences at work: the relationship with painting; and the unique nature of photography.

The first photographers had several centuries of art to draw on in shaping the route their medium would take, indeed some sought to ape painting in a bid for artistic credibility.  Leaving that misguided avenue aside, photography employed the ruckenfigur in the same basic ways the painting had.

The invention of photography coincided with an opening up of the world as steam power brought new, faster means of travel and the camera was quickly adopted as a tool of topographic record with the ruckenfigur used in the conventional sense of staffage.  Platt D Babbitt employed the figure in this way in Niagara Falls (c.1853), as did Edweard Muybridge in Falls of the Yosemite from Glacier Rock (1872). Herbert Ponting created an iconic ruckenfigur photograph in this mode in Grotto in a Berg, Terra Nova in the Distance (1911).

The ruckenfigur(s) is also used as a framing device to focus attention on the main subject or action.  Examples include Firing ‘Joe Chamberlain’ at Magersfontein (1899) by Reinhold Thiele, Old Glory goes up on Mt Suribachi, Iwo Jima (1945) by Joe Rosenthale and Vietcong captives in the Mekong Delta (1963), by Larry Burrows.

The turned figure also recurs in the nude, sometimes for reasons of modesty and sometimes for artistic effect.  Oscar Rejlander included turned female figures the The Two Ways of Life (1857); Edmond Lebel posed a classic male nude in Photographic Study of a Male Nude (1874); Man Ray created the surreal Ingres Violin (1921); and Willy Ronis pictured a French idyll in Provencale Nude, Gordes (1949).

The ruckenfigur(s) as incidental bystander(s) appeared quickly in documentary scenes of everyday life, as seen in the work of Calvert Jones, William Kilburn, Charles Negre and H. P. Robinson mentioned above.  It is as form of figure that has become pervasive in photography ever since, e.g. The Terminal, New York (1892) by Alfred Stieglitz, Political Rally, Parc des Expositions (1953) by Henri Cartier Bresson and Fifth Avenue, New York City by Joel Meyerowitz.

It is this form of the ruckenfigur that reflects one of the unique characteristics of photography: the ability to capture, or document action as it happens in an unposed (though not uncomposed) way.  The rear view is in part how we see the world and this is inevitably captured in photography.  Indeed, this becomes a virtue and the freedom that photography enjoys means that the ruckenfigur is an increasingly significant motif in revealing something about the scene and the figure(s) and the relationships between them and with the photographer.  Over time we see a merging of the four conventional uses of the ruckenfigur as components within increasing complex photographs, most often within a broadly documentary approach.  Some of those already mentioned are iconic images within the cannon of photography; other icons include:

The Water Rats (1886), Frank Meadow Sutcliffe

Wall Street (1915), Paul Strand

At the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London (c. 1925), James Jarche

Chez Suzy, Introductions (c.1932), Brassai

The Crouched Ones (1935), Manual Alvarez Bravo

Sunday on the Banks of the Marne (1938), Henri Cartier Bresson

The Walk to Paradise Garden (1946), W. Eugene Smith

Srinagar, Kashmir (1948), Henri Cartier Bresson

Bank of the Seine (1953) Henri Cartier Bresson

Locks at Bougival, France (1955), Henri Cartier Bresson

Salinas, California (1972), Lee Friedlander

Peter Paul Fortress, Leningrad, USSR (1973), Henri Cartier Bresson

Orissa, India (1979), Henri Cartier Bresson

In addition to the above, the rear view in fashion photography is often employed to display a cut, fabric or style to advantage and the face or personality of the model is unimportant (though much more so now in the age of the supermodel).  Most fashion pictures are ephemeral, but just occasionally something of lasting value emerges, such as Divers, Horst with model, Paris (1930) by George Hoyningen-Huene and Mainboucher Corset (1939) by Horst P. Horst.

Other photographers who have used the ruckenfigur to good effect include Berenice Abbott, Hippolyte Bayard, Cecil Beaton, Bill Brandt, Bob Carlos Clark, Edward S. Curtis, William Eggleston, P. H. Emerson, Walker Evans, Lady Hawarden, Craigie Horesfield, E. O. Hoppe, Alexander Keighley, Andre Kertesz, Chris Killip, Dorothea Lange, Paul Martin, Don McCullin, Tina Modotti, Lorna Simpson, Edwin Smith, Weegee and Heinrich Zille.  And many more besides.  However, photography does not have a figure like Friedrich in the consistent exploration of the ruckenfigur, though Cartier Bresson has probably used it more successfully than most.


There is a Flickr group devoted to the ruckenfigur –  In July 2013 it had 1,217 members and 9,831 photos in the group pool.  It suggests criteria for the successful picture, which: ‘…clearly shows a subject from a rear point of view in contemplation of another scene…’; ‘…must be the main human subject…’; ‘…must not have visible face…’; ‘…it’s all about contemplation…’; ‘…the main subject is shown in isolation within the composition…’.  This is a very Friedrichian view of the ruckenfigur and many pictures in the group depart from this limiting approach. The history of both painting and photography show that there is indeed much more to the rear view.

What’s my approach?

The utilitarian role of the ruckenfigur as staffage is still an important element in such photographs.  He or she gives scale to the landscape or building, draws our attention to it and validates its significance.  Carefully used, however, the ruckenfigur, at whatever size can become a powerful organising element in the composition of the picture, imbuing it with a meaning that the figure or the landscape or townscape alone would lack.

The ruckenfigur can embody a range of emotions and there may be subtle clues as to whether this is wonder, happy contemplation, day dreaming, thoughtfulness, the ennui of waiting, solitude, loneliness or sadness.  Do they stand in confidence or uncertainty? We can never be certain because the give-away face is hidden.  If the ruckenfigur is alone, with a group or another photographer we may pick up clues as to where on the spectrum of emotions they sit.   However, this hidden emotion is part of the mystery of the ruckenfigur.  There is mystery too in the individuals.  Who are they?  What do they look like?  What are they like as people?  A close-up of the back for a cropped male head on a thickset neck can convey a sense of menace.  So too with tattooed backs.  Yet, they may hide a calm face and a gentle manner.  The other side of a sun-haloed head of blond hair may not be young woman with model looks.  The Japanese have a word for this, bakku-shan, a woman who looks attractive from the rear but not from the front.  In the case of couples a rear view of linked arms may infer strongly a relationship, but where there is no contact is a shared space, who knows? The ruckenfigur poses questions and plays games with us.

But it is also revelatory: we see, literally, a side of people that they very rarely see of themselves.  They reveal a shape and a sense of fashion (or not) that they are often unaware of.  It may be a workaday suit, something flatteringly elegant or very much the opposite.  Sometimes the lack of fashion sense is reinforced by unconsciously undignified poses.  To take those unflattering images may be considered unkind, but the photographer merely records how people look and is not the author of their shape or style.  But maybe for every unflattering revelation there is a carefully constructed bakku-shan or her male equivalent.

The ruckenfigur does not have to be still nor unoccupied. The frozen gait – plodding splayed feet or elegant feet in line – reveals yet more signals.  And what are they carrying?  A rucksack for a student; and cello carapace for a musician.  Stopping to read a map?  Tourists.  Actions or a place of work reveal occupations; t-shirts reveal affiliations.What does this say about rear view photographers?  As we photograph the ruckenfigur in space we are in a sense creating a self-portrait, we are looking at the same view.  Indeed we may be the ruckenfigur portrait for a third party.

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