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Three faces of the shutter impulse

Getty exhibitions put the humanity of August Sander and the industrialism of Bernd and Hilla Becher in focus.

May 21, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

AUGUST SANDER (1876-1964) envisioned his never-completed encyclopedic inventory of the German populace as totaling more than 500 photographs divided among seven sections comprising 45 categories. The deeply absorbing J. Paul Getty Museum show "August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century" follows the broad outlines of his classification system. In this selection of 127 portraits from the Getty's tremendous collection of 1,200-plus works by the photographer, it is as if Sander called roll and the spectrum and spectacle of humanity stepped forward.

Aged peasant woman, effete student, fiery-eyed painter -- all here. Dwarfs in their Sunday best, here. Elegant and self-possessed member of parliament, here. Waitress, composer, coal carrier, bohemian -- all here. Persecuted Jew, here. And SS chief, also here, posed in full, daunting regalia and photographed without any visible irony shortly after Sander's project had been curtailed and his son jailed for agitating against the Nazi government.

Sander never could have finished his collective portrait, even if the Nazis had not put a hostile end to his efforts. He brought order, precision and a spectacularly sensitive eye for character to his self-appointed task. But that task was as elusive as it was expansive.

He announced his aim to compile an archive of images portraying "Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts" (People of the 20th Century) in the late 1920s, more than two decades into his career as a commercial portrait photographer based largely in Cologne. In 1929, he published a 60-image preview of the larger project called "Antlitz der Zeit" (Face of the Time). "Every person's story is written plainly on his face," he asserted in a radio address two years later. "More than anything, physiognomy means an understanding of human nature."

Sander's career became firmly established just in time to be undone by the National Socialist regime, which countered his vision of a heterogenous society with one of idealized racial purity, lethally enforced. The true "Face of the Time" had to be suppressed: Sander's book was banned, confiscated, and the printing plates were destroyed. Sander moved to the countryside, where he continued to accrue negatives for his perpetually ongoing project while shifting his professional persona to that of landscape photographer.

Every archive is, inevitably, also an editorial. Sander's reflects his belief that civilizations followed patterns of development, sophistication and decay, a notion popularized in Oswald Spengler's "The Decline of the West" (1918). He organized his photographic material according to such a progression, moving from farmer to banker to blind man and beggar, from archetypes of earthbound solidity to the dregs of urban industrialization. Much is omitted along the way (he gave notoriously short shrift to the Weimar Republic's liberated, newly enfranchised woman), but Sander took in the gritty evidence of Germany's economic distress as avidly as its cultural florescence.

He posed his subjects to deliver maximum information by economical means, without flourishes. Every subject is in sharp focus, and nearly all stare directly at the camera in honest declarations of the self.

An image of a girl inside a carnival wagon, reaching her arm through a window to place the key in the lock of the door that confines her, is an entire parable in a single frame. Many of the pictures could yield whole novels. At least one actually did: "Young Farmers," an iconic triple portrait, inspired Richard Powers' fascinating 1985 "Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance," in which the young men are described as having "dropped their obstinate masks of individuality and taken up the more serious work of the tribe."

Every Sander subject oscillates between those obligations to represent the unique self and the generalized type. Sander's ambition and the medium's unnerving defiance of temporal laws enable us to lock eyes with these diverse souls. The effect is staggering, sobering, heartening.

Theme and variation are also in dynamic interplay in an adjacent show in the Getty's galleries: "Bernd and Hilla Becher: Basic Forms." Both shows were curated by the Getty's Virginia Heckert, who worked with Judy Annear of Australia's Art Gallery of New South Wales on the Sander.

The Bechers, German photographers who married in 1961 and worked collaboratively until Bernd's death last year, built a portrait archive of their own, only not with human subjects. They photographed industrial structures such as blast furnaces, water towers and silos, each from a uniform distance in flat, neutralizing light.

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