“Indexing the World” and August Sander at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

August Sander, Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne (1931), gelatin silver print, 11-7/16″ x 8-11/16″; courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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How do you know that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the best museum going? Check out the deft manner in which its curators have juxtaposed Indexing the World and August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, two superb exhibitions of photography that close Oct. 17 and Sept. 19, respectively. Drawn from the Gilman Paper Company Collection and the Met’s own holdings, Indexing the World focuses on photography as a tool for scientific, as well as pseudo-scientific, classification. It’s a compendium of fascinating, if often troubling, artifacts.

We’re unlikely to lift an eyebrow taking in botanical studies, penny picture postcards or a commercial sampling of hats; they have a period fascination. We’re likely to be surprised in learning that ear identification was the precursor to fingerprinting–Alphonse Bertillon’s photos will have you thinking about the quirks of your own features. The sardonic, knowing gaze of the title figure in Hugh Welch Diamond’s Patient, Surrey County Lunatic Asylum (1850-58) will prompt despair over the standards of 19th-century medicine. As for Who Is an Aryan?, a 1933 picture by an unknown German photographer:  it emphasizes how readily science can be hijacked to serve the most horrific of purposes.

There are items featured in Indexing the World that can be considered art, both good (photos by Walker Evans, Eugene Atget and Ed Ruscha) and bad (Jennifer and Kevin McCoy’s exegesis on the television program Starsky and Hutch). But the show’s main objective is to provide context, counterpoint and support to People of the Twentieth Century, August Sander’s comprehensive photographic record of the German people. Indexing the World gently bolsters Sander’s case by underscoring the connection (typology) and the difference (aesthetic worth). People of the Twentieth Century doesn’t need much bolstering–it’s one of the most ambitious undertakings within the modern canon. That it was also foolhardy and not a little obsessive, as well as incomplete, in no way diminishes its stature.

Sander photographed German citizens for 40 years, from the early 1920’s up until his death in 1964. (He was born in 1876.) “I classified all the types I encountered,” Sander stated, “in relation to one basic type who had all the characteristics of mankind in general.” The exact count of citizens he caught on film is unknown–most of Sander’s negatives were destroyed in a fire in 1942, the estimated loss numbering between 25,000 and 30,000. Taking into account the photographs and negatives that do exist–1,800–the mind boggles: Who didn’t Sander photograph?

Sander was nothing if not democratic: Disabled miners, gypsies and “people who came to my door”–including the bailiff threatening eviction–were as vital to his undertaking as businessmen, doctors and attorneys. The Nazis saw fit to burn the plates of Faces of Our Time, the first published version of People of the Twentieth Century . Sander’s inclusive vision, wherein an “idiot” has as much validity as a member of the Hitler Youth, didn’t sit well with a regime that had its own virulent ideal of German society.

Sander didn’t probe the characteristics of type so much as scour them. His subjects, the majority of which acknowledge the viewer, seem pinned down by the intensity of Sander’s eye. Accoutrements specific to certain types–clothing indicative of social standing, say, or tools–are the focus; individuals don’t register. There are exceptions: A boxer with a goofy, ingratiating smile; an imperious baker; the Dadaist artist Raoul Hausmann affecting a mock aristocratic attitude–all fend off Sander’s narrow pursuit with glimpses of personality. For the most part, the photos trade empathy for a relentless accounting of the facts.

People of the Twentieth Century is, in a sense, an essay in anti-portraiture–at least if we’re expecting insight into the particulars of temperament. Sander himself remains a cipher, though his tenaciousness is impossible to ignore, and there’s no doubting that the formality typical of the work owes to the conventions of early photographic portraiture. Yet the cumulative effect of the photographs is singular and intensely disinterested. (You could say that Sander was passionate about dispassion.)

Running roughshod over the distinctions between sociology, journalism, science and art, Sander aimed for an unflinching objectivity–and ended up with something close enough to it to make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You’ll walk out of the exhibition taking a closer, and perhaps less charitable, look at the pedestrians walking up the Met’s grand staircase–testament to the pull of Sander’s daunting achievement.

© 2004 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 19, 2004 edition of The New York Observer.

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