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"People of the Twentieth Century": August Sander's Photographic Portrait of Germany

Exhibition dates: May 25 – September 19, 2004
Exhibition location: Galleries for Drawings, Prints and Photographs, Second Floor
Press preview: Monday, May 24, 10 a.m. – noon

Approximately 150 images by the pioneering German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) will be on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art beginning May 25, 2004. The photographs are drawn from the artist's most famous project, People of the Twentieth Century (Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts), which was envisioned as a comprehensive visual record of the German populace.

One of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of photography, the project occupied Sander for some 40 years, from 1911 to 1952, during which he took portraits of thousands of German citizens and then categorized them by social type and occupation — from peasant farmers to circus performers to prosperous businessmen. Remarkable for their unflinching realism and deft analysis of character and lifestyle, Sander's individual images stand out as high points of photographic portraiture and collectively propose the idea of the archive as art.

"People of the Twentieth Century": August Sander's Photographic Portrait of Germany, on view through September 19, 2004, will feature a representative selection from each of Sander's categories and include such now-iconic images as Pastrycook (1928), Young Farmers on Sunday (1914), and The Secretary of German National Radio, Cologne (1931). Although the Nazis confiscated the first publication of Sander's work, and some 30,000 of his negatives were later destroyed by fire, approximately 600 portraits survive, as well as Sander's notes and plans for the project. These have provided the basis for the recent reconstruction of the work in book and exhibition form undertaken by the August Sander Archiv in Cologne.

The exhibition was organized by Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne.

Philippe de Montebello, Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented: "Endowed with extraordinary observational powers and heroic determination, August Sander has left us with a compelling collective portrait of the German people during one of the most turbulent periods in their history. These powerful images, with their combination of unflattering objectivity and sympathy for the human condition, exerted a profound influence on later generations of photographers, among them the Americans Walker Evans and Diane Arbus."

The son of a carpenter, August Sander was born in 1876, in a farming and mining community east of Cologne. His introduction to photography came while working as a young apprentice in the mines, when a visiting landscape photographer asked the boy to serve as his guide. Despite his provincial background, Sander became involved with many of the avant-garde artistic ideas of his day, among them the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a movement led by his friend, the painter Otto Dix, which advocated a return to realism and social commentary in art.

Around 1922, Sander conceived and embarked on an ambitious magnum opus to be called People of the Twentieth Century, intended, as he stated, to be "a physiognomic image of an age," and a catalogue of "all the characteristics of the universally human." His portrait images were grouped into seven categories, which, in and of themselves, reveal Sander's views of the German social order. The prototypical category and foundation of the project was the farmer (Der Bauer); later, six other categories were devised: the skilled tradesman (Der Handwerker); the woman (Die Frau); classes and professions (Die Stände); the artists (Die Künstler); the city (Die Groéstadt); and, the last and perhaps most compelling category, the last people (Die letzten Menschen), comprising the elderly, the deformed, and the dead.

Sander's inclusion of these and other marginal elements of German society—gypsies and the unemployed also figured in his work—incurred the disapproval of the National Socialist party. In 1936 the Nazis confiscated his first published version of the project, Face of the Time (Antlitz der Zeit) and destroyed all the photographic plates. Soon afterwards Sander left Cologne and moved to the relative safety of the countryside, taking with him some 10,000 negatives he had managed to save. Although work continued on People of Twentieth Century, Sander was obliged to avoid politically sensitive subjects and devoted himself to landscape photography. The project remained incomplete at his death in 1964.

The exhibition is accompanied by a seven-volume publication on the photographer's life and work, August Sander published by Harry N. Abrams Inc., and edited by Susanne Lange, Director of the Photography Collection/SK Cultural Foundation, Cologne, and Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, a scholar on the staff of the Photography Collection/SK Cultural Foundation. The publication will be available in the Museum's book shops for $195.

The exhibition was curated by Susanne Lange at Die Photographische Sammlung/ SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne. At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition is organized by Lisa Hostetler, Research Associate, with Malcolm Daniel, Acting Curator-in-Charge, in the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs.

The artistic context and wide influence of Sander's "typological" approach to photography will be explored in an installation of approximately 40 works running concurrently in the adjacent Howard Gilman Gallery. Among the works exhibited will be Eugène Atget's turn-of-the-century views of Paris; Walker Evans's remarkable portrait series, "Labor Anonymous"; Bernd and Hilla Becher's deadpan, black-and-white photographs of industrial structures; and Thomas Struth's quietly lyrical views of deserted New York City streets; as well as vernacular photographs such as salesmen's photographic sample books of hats, stoves, and stationery – functional artifacts that possess an unexpected aesthetic charm. The works displayed, drawn from the Metropolitan's holdings and the Gilman Paper Company Collection, have been selected by Mia Fineman, Research Associate in the Department of Photographs.

"People of the Twentieth Century": August Sander's Photographic Portrait of Germany, will be accompanied by an array of educational programs, including lectures and gallery talks.

The exhibition will be featured on the Museum's Web site at www.metmuseum.org.

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