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Disquieting Norms

THE CHILLY, ALIENATING MOOD THAT intrigues us in August Sander’s portrait photographs—shown in an excellent exhibition directed by Michael Hoffman and coordinated by Martha Chahroudi1—may be our own creation, for it has nothing to do with his purposes. Susan Sontag writes:

Sander’s complicity with everybody also means a distance from everybody. His complicity with his subjects is not naive . . . but nihilistic. Despite its class realism, it is one of the most truly abstract bodies of work in the history of photography.

To say that this German artist is “abstract” and “nihilistic” is to characterize in modernist terms a personality who acknowledged mostly older influences: Goethe, for instance, in the close harmony of culture and nature.

One has only to think of the much younger Moholy-Nagy to perceive how truly archaic was Sander’s impulse during the Interregnum, when both men were at their

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