New York

August Sander

Robert Schoelkopf Gallery

August Sander’s subject was the German people of his time, and he immodestly called his project “People of the Twentieth Century.” Between the years 1910 and 1938 Sander (1876–1964) methodically recorded singly, in pairs and in groups, Germans of every class and occupation, from peasants and laborers on up through the petite bourgeoisie of German towns to rich industrialists, military officers and the intelligentsia of professors, musicians and artists. He was not interested in the individual, but in the gathering of types to yield archetypes. Many of these images, strictly grouped, became more widely known with the 1971 publication of Men Without Masks, a survey of 275 portraits and only part of Sander’s project (which was itself cut short by Nazi interference). The exhibition at Schoelkopf numbers 50 “vintage” prints, most of them unpublished portraits from Sander’s project, and about 10 landscapes. It forms a good introduction to his work, more digestible and varied than the book itself, which too often just inundates you with its scope.

Sander shot everyone, regardless of station, the same way: head-on, at eye-level. He dispensed with the grainy paper and atmospheric light by which photography had attempted to mimic painting; his treatment is uniformly crisp and harsh. The prints themselves look as if they were made yesterday, but the people are from another, past time. These portraits are rich and demanding; they hold your attention. There is a kind of tension that Sander brings up in these people, or maybe it is an intensity that is particularly German, that he had no ability or wish to relax, either in himself or in them. Sander’s equal treatment of everyone (more visible in the book than here) can seem a little frightening. He is zealous and apolitical in his mission. Individuals don’t matter; photographing Nazis is the same as photographing student revolutionaries, artists the same as industrialists. And he forces us very often to see his subjects as he did: as representatives of social types.

Sander shows, nevertheless, how people’s humanity shifts and is molded at different levels of society. This exhibition is an opportunity for comparisons. The peasants often seem more human and alive than the upper classes. A peasant woman and an organ grinder are the only faces which seem to have acquired a look of wisdom as they aged. Moving up the social scale, Sander’s subjects become increasingly stiff and distant, they stare pompously into the camera or blankly past it. Educated men seem particularly uniform and sad, as if limited by familial and social responsibility (and Sander does not give equal time to individual women). Through Sander’s lens, artists do not look particularly creative, but some of them suffer more overtly from an unspecified malady: they seem genuinely haunted with the psychological tension seen in German Expressionist portraits, made all the more convincing by Sander’s totally nonexpressionistic mode. (Sander, like Dürer, is after the facts and ends up with much more.) The close-up view of Heinrich Hoerle shows only his head; the painter peers with cold, suspicious dignity at the camera, a look well known in many of Max Beckmann’s self-portraits.

When Sander breaks his format there is a thrill of recognition, the people seem more normal and approachable, and the photographs, spatially and compositionally, become more exciting. In a large photograph two itinerant handymen in identical black suits and bowlers walk into a cobblestoned, half-timbered scene, their backs to the camera; the man on the right looks quizically over his shoulder at Sander and at us. It is one of the few instances where a subject clearly engages and acknowledges us and practically invites us into his space and into the story of his life. And in the only picture of Sander’s own family, his wife pushes a child in a carriage, while an older child leads the way single-file along a mountain path; the land falls away beyond them and their silhouettes on the narrow high shelf of foreground have the strange staginess of a George Stubbs painting.

These two pictures, by contrast, point up what is so potent about Sander’s photography and also so depressing. With rare exceptions, Sander’s people are not caught at any particular point in time—they seem frozen for eternity. It is difficult to imagine them going through life expressing anything but what we see on their faces. The handymen and Sander’s family are more obviously in the process of experiencing their lives, of knowing who they are. The rest combine to form a collective portrait of the German people: it is possible to sense the nation’s past and (God knows) its future in these portraits. But few of these people admit the possibility of a personal history, or of an individual consciousness of that past and future. History is temporal; they did not participate, it occurred elsewhere.

Roberta Smith