August Sander: Men Without Masks / Reviewed by Malcolm Cossons / 02.07.18
Frank and unflinching, the faces in August Sander’s portraits do not so much make eye contact as demand it. From farm girls to customs officers, sailors to students, bankers to beggars, Sander’s photographs in Men Without Masks – running at Hauser and Wirth until 28th July – encompass the breadth of German society between 1910 and 1931.
In a career that covered 60 years and hundreds of images, Sander worked closely with his subjects to make them relaxed and engaged with the camera. These early examples, with their precise vision, were the groundwork for Sander’s vast lifelong project to catalogue the diversity of the inhabitants of Germany, People of the 20th Century. He documented not only individuals but also archetypes, and this comprehensive approach ultimately incurred the wrath of the Nazi regime who in 1936 destroyed the printing blocks and remaining copies of his book, The Face of Our Time.
In 1973 August’s son Gunther, following the death of his father nine years earlier, was working on a new publication entitled Menschen Ohne Maske, or Men Without Masks. At the same time he selected and printed 160 images in a uniquely large format for exhibition at the Mannheim Kunstverein – 81 of these works are in this Hauser and Wirth show.
The origin of these prints underlines the complexity around editions of Sander’s work given the estate has been a family concern for three generations. Firstly and most rare, of course, are original prints produced in his lifetime, with the photographer often working together with Gunther. An example of Handlanger [Bricklayer], for instance, printed in 1927 and mounted on vellum sold at Sotheby’s in New York in 2014 for an auction record of $749,000.
While Gunther continued to make prints, his son Gerd made the process of producing and tracking them more systematic following his father’s death in the 1980s. For ten years from 1990 annual editions of 12 prints were produced, in addition to seven sets of the complete 619 prints from People of the 20th Century. Never assembled in August’s lifetime, one is now in MoMA in New York. The fourth generation of the family are now involved, with Julian, a gallerist and photographer in his own right, collaborating with Hauser and Wirth on this show.
The complexity regarding the prints aside, one of the most striking aspects of this exhibition is the modernity of these images. They work as a record, but Sander was a pioneer in how he posed and printed his pictures. His shots were instrumental in establishing the distinction between photography and painting, influencing modern and contemporary photographers from Walker Evans and Diane Arbus to Tina Barney, Rineke Dijkstra and Bernd and Hilla Becher. However, despite their contemporary aesthetic, these photographs have the hand of history upon them – it is impossible to look at the faces of the children, the disabled, the workmen, politicians and soldiers and not wonder what became of them in the upheavals that convulsed Germany and Europe.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Malcolm Cossons
August Sander: Men Without Masks continues at Hauser and Wirth, Savile Row until 28th July, 2018
23 Savile Row
London W1S 2ET