From now until September 19, 2004, a formidable selection of work by German photographer, August Sander (1876-1964) is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Drawings, Prints, and Photographs Galleries, 2nd floor. All of the 150 photographs in the exhibition originate from Sander's much larger project, People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts), which consists of a catalogue of more than 600 images.
In an analytical style often associated ˜for better or for worse˜ with the Germanic temperament, August Sander set about to construct a comprehensive study of his fellow citizens by creating photographic portraits of the various social "types" of his time. He began in 1909 with photographing farmers after training in Trier as a photography assistant during his military service (see image one). Sander went on to develop his own classification system, which segregated subjects into seven essential types: the farmer, the skilled tradesman, the woman, classes and professions, the artists, the city and the last people (social misfits and the handicapped). The contemporary critic can not help but be provoked to write off these narrow definitions, yet at the same time be somewhat amused by the singular category afforded to "the woman" - naturally in a class unto itself.
Coming out of Germany's new objectivity movement (Die Neue Sachlichkeit) that reacted against abstraction in favor of realism, Sander presented a typological difference in portrait studies to what had been previously achieved. Rather than capturing the projected "idea" of a person as had been idealized in classical painting, Sander sought to capture and categorize a person's "essential character." He believed that the camera provided a detached means to go beyond outward appearances into cultural type. He hoped that his project would allow for a new manner of understanding humanity. Building on this reasoning, Sander asserted "we know that people are formed by light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled - It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures."
Sander was no doubt influenced by 18th century Frenchmen Diderot and d'Alembert who were the first people to catalogue information and create the encyclopedia, which was hailed at the time as "the quintessence of human knowledge" and now as the internet prototype. Imitating the listing of information in an encyclopedia format, Sander's main invention was that he substituted verbal analysis for visual analysis. In doing so, Sander aimed to catalogue the visual facts of humanity which would then yield special insights after scrupulous examination. His endeavor to create in photography a German encyclopédie of physiognomy may seem to the contemporary mind like a strange combo of art and science. Yet more than anything else Sander seems to have been motivated by a need to channel the idea of classifying knowledge into an artistic language.
As if sticking to a Hollywood made-for-TV movie script, in the 1930s the Nazis confiscated the publication of Sander‚s first volume of work called Face of Time (Antlitz der Zeit). Apparently, the people in the photographs did not conform to the Nazi ideal. Since his images deviated dramatically from Aryan propaganda, they were destroyed. Fortunately, only Sander‚s printing plates were lost while the negatives survived. Yet, the project was never completed and Sander turned to subjects of architecture and nature.
Muing over the photographs, one fascinating realization is that their tour-de-force comes through a paradoxical blend of repose with powerful heroism. The photographs are essentially tranquil, with very little movement, but at the same time they have showy bravado. It is the mixture of comfortable charm with bold declaration that fascinates and ignites interest.
Consider the study, Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne, 1931, (image two) in which a young woman conforms her body submissively to the position of her daily work: seated taking instructions from an imposing boss. This secretary is attractive with chiseled features; she has an arrested moment when she pauses before she finishes the cigarette. Stop right here. Couldn't one argue that Sander's classification system falls to pieces simply on the basis that not all secretaries are as attractive and seductive as this mädchen. Or should we rather consider that Sander is making an alternative suggestion that anyone who can respond to a series of demands and fulfill mindless tasks must have an underlining strength. From casual observation, her appearance suggests that she is reserved and a bit shy. Yet the prominent shadow cast to her right quietly implies another more confident, strong and thoroughly independent side. Although she clutches her other arm for added security, she simultaneously commands the space around her through Sander's staging while all the time asking for approval with a pair of delicate eyes. It is probably just like this in her normal workday: a struggle between control and compliance.
Notice also the undulating folds in her satin-like dress. Whether conscious or not the fabric creases call to mind the serpentine line that progresses up the gown in much the same way as in da Vinci's Mona Lisa. Da Vinci quite consciously used this line as a device to draw the eye into the painting, here the curves work consciously or subconsciously for Sander as the eye roams across her sleeves as it gently winds its way into the photo.
No one can realistically support that Sander was successful in disclosing a secret link about people or what mysteriously arranges society's class structures. Nevertheless, to Sander is due an enormous gratitude for his effort to represent his neighbors in painstaking exactitude which would record and import an added value to their lives as he crafted new concepts that were hitherto unseen in art making. His social conscience is evident in his attention and concern for those who lived around him. It is not a morally outraged indictment of his society, but rather a celebration of the living that life bestows.
Sander‚s "people" at the MET will need to be observed before they break their installation pose and journey back home to storage. After the viewing, avoid undo fixations with categorical truths, but do honor Sander by partaking of some aplelstrude (apple strudel) or German chocolate cake with friends. Compare notes with the "people" of today while you discuss this classy exhibition.
By Jennifer E. Roche
Jennifer Roche writes from New York City. She has four years experience working in the curatorial department of the Frick Art Museum where she assisted in installing and interpreting such historical exhibitions as Masterworks from the Albertina: Renaissance to Rococo, Rubens, Jordaens, Van Dyck and Their Circle: Flemish Master Drawings from the Museum Boijmans van Beuningen and Millet to Matisse as well as contemporary art exhibitions such as Clayton Days by Vik Muniz.
August Sander (German, 1876–1964)
Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne, 1931
Gelatin silver print; 29 x 22 cm (11 7/16 x 8 11/16 in.)
© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur—August Sander Archiv, Cologne; ARS, New York 2004