The Way They Were, We Are

August Sander's everyday folk if there's a word with a bad reputation around today, it's "stereotype." But without those invisible mental molds in which to slip specific images of people, to see how closely they fit, how else can we get a glimpse of universal human nature in pictures of the local butcher, coal hauler or policeman? August Sander (1876-1964) thought he could supply a visual database, so to speak, for such perceptions. From 1910 to 1929, this former commercial portraitist roamed German towns and countryside to photograph people from all walks of life. Sander planned hundreds of portraits for a project called "Man in the Twentieth Century," but in the end gathered only 60 for a volume entitled Antlitz der Zeit ("Face of Our Time"), published in 1929. Scientifically naive, yes -- but the photographs for the project are among the most quietly moving in the whole history of photography, as anyone fortunate enough to visit Manhattan's Robert Miller Gallery through Oct. 8 can see.

Sander is a craftsman (for detail and tone, he used smooth, hard-finished paper), but his empathy makes these pictures great. There's a prideful pastry maker, posing as if his spoon and mixing bowl were a sword and shield. A young, middle-class mother seems to regard the camera as the future, and asks it to take good care of her child. Three revolutionaries take five, like a folk trio between sets. Only an unemployed man turns his gaze away. Five years after the book appeared, the Nazis seized all available copies. Realizing that Sander's unblinking look at the German people wouldn't do much to promote their retrograde ideal of uniformly statuesque and contented Aryans, they ordered the printing plates destroyed. But the gallery's complete set of vintage prints (from the original mock-up of the book) reveal that Sander's tender taxonomies capture the singular miracle common to us all: that in spite of almost everything, we endure, trudge on and above all, hope.

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