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Face to face with the human tragedy

Over a span of four decades, from the 1920s to the 1960s, the German photographer August Sander labored to compile one of the most comprehensive portrait archives of the 20th century, a vast repository of more than 35,000 images he conceived of as the human face of his time.

It was a hugely ambitious project, and one not accomplished without struggle. Though the first volume of Sander's portraits was published in 1929, under the title Anlitz der Zeit ("Face of Our Time"), the Nazis confiscated the existing copies in 1936 and destroyed the printing plates.

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A few years later, Sander was forced to leave his studio in Cologne for the countryside. He took about 10,000 of his negatives with him, but more than 25,000 were left behind and were later destroyed by fire.

Meanwhile, Sander's son Erich, who had assisted in his work, was arrested in 1934; he died while serving his sentence in a Nazi prison in 1943.

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After the war, Sander's portraits were rediscovered by Edward Steichen, director of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, who included them in his landmark 1955 exhibition The Family of Man. Sander continued to work on his archive, which remained incomplete at his death 1964.

This is roughly the narrative traced by August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, A Photographic Portrait of Germany, the beautiful and somber exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Divided into seven sections that reflect Sander's scheme of classifying social types -- such as farmers, tradesmen and skilled workers -- the show includes 150 photographs that together make a collective portrait of the German people during a crucial period in their history.

Sander's goal was to create a typology of the German people by using the objective qualities of the photographic medium to record the faces of men and women from all walks of life.

Unvarnished realism

Perhaps because he had been raised in a rural setting and inculcated with strong rural values, his first portraits were of farmers, whom he regarded as the prototypical social actors because of their close relationship to nature and adherence to tradition.

Sander's portrait of three farmers walking along a muddy lane on their way to church embodies all the elements of his photographic aesthetic. The men face the camera calmly and directly; their expressions suggest that their journey has been momentarily interrupted.

After about 1924, Sander began adding new categories to his archive of social types. His system for classifying people could be idiosyncratic: for example, he identified "aristocrat" as an occupation and lumped together bankers and street vendors as "businessmen."

He also devoted a category to "The Woman," doubtless as a way of recognizing the sweeping changes in attitudes resulting from women's large-scale entry into the workplace after World War I. He contrasted fashionably dressed modern working women with the traditional wives of the middle class and their preoccupation with family, home and motherhood.

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In all of these projects, Sander strove for an unvarnished realism. He did not view the camera's image as an illusion of truthfulness, as would a later generation of photographers, but rather as an objective record that possessed the authenticity of a natural phenomenon, like the reflection in a mirror.

This was also the attitude that he brought to his images of people on the margins of German society -- circus performers, Gypsies, the mentally disabled, the unemployed -- which so displeased the Nazis after they seized power in 1933.

Sander's project was humanist and universal, an archive in which every member of society, from the humblest to the most exalted, constituted a vital link in the social order. This contradicted Nazi theories that divided humanity into two categories: a "master race" and "subhumans."

(It did not help, of course, that many of the artists and intellectuals whom Sander photographed were also Socialists or Jewish or both.)

Ineffable sadness

Looking at the photographs today, one is struck by what the writer Janet Malcolm once described as "a sadness that comes across not as a passing feeling experienced by [Sander's] subject[s] (or as a national condition) but as the permanent condition of mankind."

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There is something ineffably sad about Sander's monumental archive of faces, which together seem to reflect the tragedy of the human condition as well as the catastrophic events in Germany before and during World War II. Like the Spanish painter Goya, Sander possessed at bottom a tragic vision of life in which loneliness, alienation and death are the only real constants.

We look at the photographs today and wonder how these ordinary people, so apparently like us, could have allowed themselves to be sucked into the monstrous evil hatching itself in their midst while they calmly went about their everyday lives. The photographs inevitably pose the uncomfortable question of whether we would have behaved any differently under similar circumstances.

Sander's great contribution to the art of his time lay in his invention of the archive itself as a single, multifaceted work, one defined not only by its subject matter but also by a rigorous method that governs how each and every image is created.

His work laid the theoretical foundation for such later German artists as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and others who have continued to explore the possibilities of serial imagery, as well as for a host of postmodern practices that depend on the systematic, even obsessive accumulation of diverse examples to describe a single subject.

There is something both obsessive and slightly mad about Sander's ambition: One suspects he might have gone on to photograph every face in Germany if he were able, and after that the entire planet and its infinite cup of suffering. His curiosity about people was insatiable.

His greatness lies in the fact that he was able to conceive such a magnificent project at all and then carry out a good portion of it before he died, which is perhaps all we can expect of any artist.

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On exhibit

What: August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, A Photographic Portrait of Germany

Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York

When: Through Sept. 19

Hours:Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.

Admission: $12 adults, $7 students and seniors

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Call: 212-535-7710 or visit the Web site www.metmuseum.org.


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