DAVID COHEN, Editor           
       September 2004  

 

August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century
A Photographic Portrait of Germany

Metropolitan Museum of Art
May 25, 2004–September 19, 2004
Drawings, Prints, and Photographs Galleries and The Howard Gilman Gallery


By BRIAN APPEL

August Sander Member of the Hitler Youth 1938
gelatin silver print, 24 x 17 cm, lent by
Lothar Schirmer, Munich, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art

"Member Of Hitler Youth," (1938) is terrifying in a way that I can recall no other picture being. The Nazi brown shirt uniform with its distinctive master race message is strangely muted by the idiosyncratic bespectacled sitter who is projecting the opposite of heroic determination. An almost effete facial and body language inverts the programmed response to the uniform of the Third Reich. The astigmatic eyes of the youth looks tentatively up at the viewer dissolving our preconceptions about the social identity of a Nazi. The horror of looking at a sympathetic, everyday character who shares the ideology of a madman freezes into position the realization that it was individuals like you and me who were capable of the most heinous crimes. The resulting pictorial panorama is an impressive, provocative puzzle that will haunt you well after you walk away from these images.

For an exhibition that matches historical import and aesthetic merit, it is hard to imagine much that betters the 150 vintage print diplay of August Sander at the Metropolitan Museum of Art this summer. I was drawn to the show five times and remained hypnotized by it. At the preview, Philippe de Montebello, the museum's director, described it as a "compelling collective portrait of the German people during one of the most turbulent periods in their history".

In a review of Sander's work in the early 1930s, Walker Evans, whose own encyclopedic project was set on course by Sander, exclaimed, "This is one of the futures of photography foretold by Atget. It is a photographic editing of society; a clinical process; even enough of a cultural necessity to make one wonder why other so-called advanced countries of the world have not also been examined and recorded?". It is also purported that, some decades later, Diane Arbus also found the theme for her own work in Sander's portraits; above all in his images of people living on the extreme margins of society: Sander's "Girl in Fairground Caravan," (1926-32); "Circus Artistes," (same date) and "Children Born Blind," (c.1930) all find resonance in her own images. . The influence of Sander's "topological" approach-extending to the likes of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Rineke Dijkstra, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth-was explored in an installation simultaneously on view in the adjacent Howard Gilman Gallery.

August Sander Circus Artistes 1926-32
silver gelatin print, 23.4 x 29.2 cm
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne


A carpenter's son, August Sander was born in 1876 in a small mining community near Cologne. He was introduced to photography when he was working as a young apprentice in the mines and a visiting photographer, Heinrich Schmeck. asked him to serve as a guide. He studied photography in Trier and Dresden and eventually set up professionally in 1902. By 1922, August had many friends and acquaintances from the artistic circles of Cologne and developed his advocacy for a return to realism and social commentary. According to his youngest son, Gunther, it was thanks to his association with the painters Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Otto Dix and Hans Poelzig that Sander conceived of his life project to create a comprehensive photographic index of the German population, reflecting the employment divisions and social structures of the day. Sander and Seiwert often discussed the specific tasks facing contemporary painting and photography. Both men had close links with the Neue Sachlichkeit [New Objectivity] whose works were an expression of intense engagement with social and political events.

Sander's first structured compilation of portraits was his 1929 publication "Antlitz Der Zeit" [Face Of Our Time]. The book was important not only for its powerful content but also for its revolutionary design, which would prove to have an enormous impact on the way photographers would present their work. Each of the 60 photographs was printed opposite a blank page and the images were sequenced according to Sander's larger scheme for "People Of The Twentieth Century", so that their order was an integral component of the presentation. The volume's introduction was written by Alfred Doblin, author of the experimental novel, "Berlin Alexanderplatz," (1929) a psychologically and sociologically inflected stream-of-conscious narrative about the life of a Berlin worker.

Sander's book joined other works of art that were driven from the marketplace by the Gestapo, its printing plates destroyed. Although the Nazis confiscated the first publication of Sander's work and the majority of his negatives were later destroyed by fire, "People of the Twentieth Century" survived as well as Sander's notes and plans. Eleven thousand of his most important negatives were evacuated before the balance of 30,000 were destroyed in the cellars of the building in which he had lived and worked in Cologne.

August Sander Pastrycook 1928
silver gelatin print, 23.8 x14 cm
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne

"People of the Twentieth Century" classified the German population into seven groups: the farmer, the skilled tradesman, women, classes and professions, artists, the city,and the last people. These groups were further subdivided into over 45 portfolios which he intended to contain up to 600 photographs. Organized by Lisa Hostetler and Malcolm Daniel at the Metropolitan and curated by Dr. Susanne Lange, director of the Sander archive in Cologne, in collaboration with Gerd Sander (the artist's grandson) the show makes a brilliant representative selection from each of Sander's categories.

"Bailiff," (c.1930) at approximately 11-1/4 x 6-1/2 inches an exquisite vintage gelatin silver print of a police bailiff who was serving Sander himself with eviction papers makes a subtle reference to the photographer's own poor financial situation. As Sander himself later recounted, "After the bailiff had affixed his seal to my door, I asked if I could take a photograph of him". Wearing a 3/4 length black winter coat, dark hat and worn shoes, the bailiff stands legs wide apart as if to prevent being blown about by a storm. Holding a pipe in his right hand and a briefcase pressed against his chest, he looks to be perspiring slightly; his scarf remains tight around his neck and his coat is buttoned to the top. This gesture caught by August's vivid, detail-laden process deftly analysizes the body language of this rather large man in a pose consistent with someone expecting an angry or strong response to the eviction papers. His face, however, belongs to another realm of being; it suggests vulnerability, a surprise to the request to be photographed: even as the man poses he is searching inwardly suggesting there is more here than is apparent on the surface. The clothes and body language reveal the social place and occupation of the bailiff but the 'inappropriate' facial language prolongs our viewer's gaze. We are startled to discover we are in a reverie with the possibilities of what's going on in this 'stranger's' mind - and for that matter, ours. This irresolvable tension between the inner state of the subject and the concreteness of his 'uniform' suggests there is more to reality than there is to see, even as it appears we are presented with an image that is 'all there'.

August Sander Children Born Blind ca. 1930
silver gelatin print, 9-1/2 x 7 inches
Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of the photographer

"Political Prisoner [Erich Sander]," (1943) is a self-portrait by August's eldest son. He is seen in profile, reading at his desk in the cell where he was imprisoned by the Nazis. On the eve of his release after 10 years' imprisonment, Erich died of a preventable burst appendix, ironically while working in the prison's sick bay. Like his father, Erich was an accomplished photographer, and in addition to his duties in the prison's sick bay, he was instructed by the warden to update the institution's photographic records. The Nazi excuse for his imprisonment was his political activities, but it is also likely that the real reason the Nazis persecuted Erich lay in his father's ability to depict the truth about his fellow Germans. In violation of the totalitarian state's propaganda, August Sander did not glorify the master race; he simply showed the Germans -- including the Nazis themselves -- as they were. As Donald Kuspit remarked recently (in the Japanese journal, "Art It"), "Existential truth is always visible if one looks with the right kind of eye".

There are three other photographs of Erich in this heartbreaking, tense psychodrama of a show. Two images, "Student of Philosophy [Erich Sander],"(1926) and "Working Students," (1925) show Erich in the role of the bespectacled, serious scholar -- with no-nonsense, slicked-back hair, a solemn dark double-breasted suit with matching vest and tie -- looking with unflinching intensity at the camera. Using a glossy surface printing paper originally designed for technical photography, Sander pioneered portraits where every detail leapt from the print. Here was a new clarity where nothing was blurred for romantic effect. Gone was the rosewater hue of the gum bichromate process with its affected tinting. August Sander ushered in a kind of realism that avoids romanticism, sentimentality or nostalgia, in favor of a clear-eyed and dispassionate view.

The final image of August's son, "Death Mask Of Erich Sander," (1944) is found in the most difficult and revelatory section of the exhibition, Die Letzen Menschen [The Last People]. Sander's emotional neutrality and unflattering objectivity in this straight-on photograph lends a surreal quality to the still proud face of Erich. This concluding image in the show, in the words of the exhibition's wall text, "beautifully illustrates Sander's thoughts about the cycle of nature, and underscores his notion of death as an intrinsic part of life".

The Metropolitan Museum and the August Sander Archive in Cologne, Germany have put together a remarkable seven volume edition of August's now-iconic images along with the artist's notes and plans. "I never made a person look bad", Sander told his grandson, Gerd, a photographer and curator. "They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It's you".

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