October 10, 2009 § Leave a comment
Under the motto “Voir, Observer et Penser” the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson in Paris is currently exhibiting about 100 photos by German photographer August Sander (1876-1964). Sander is best known and admired for his work on human types, professions and social classes. His “People of the 20th century” is an attempt to give an image of the people of his time and stands at the center of his human typology. Directed against expressionism Sander employed photography to “create a universal language” by an “objective” image.
His photos show beggars and stars, peasants and artisans – people from all sides of society at the beginning of the 20th century. His magnum opus has been reissued in a collector’s edition of 7 volumes. The exhibit in Paris also features some of his little known landscape portraits of German rivers and mountain regions apart from botanical studies.
Characteristically, images are captioned with types of people rather than individual names. His concern lies with patterns in culture and how a social environment shapes posture and facial expression. A “factory owner” posing in tuxedo with his glitzy wife in front of a villa is juxtaposed with a “brick layer” – carrying bricks. His portrays are carefully crafted for each subject alike and allow space for self-reflection. Similar to his landscape studies of rivers, patterning is the overarching theme that he seeks to capture and objectify with his camera.
The problem with looking at such a typology at the beginning of the 21st century is to assume a perspective that is not by default self-referential. Hyper-mediatised as we are, it is difficult to look at an image of an individual and consider it as typical of a larger group. Where we are looking for self-expression and uniqueness, Sander’s photos upset this longing by defying individuality to the people depicted.