6.12.17 — Archetypes and Stereotypes

If you are going to reduce people to types, it helps to treat them with compassion. August Sander did—and all in the pursuit of the universal.

His photographs have collectively become a group portrait of Germany over the course of more than two decades starting in 1910. It has room for young and old, men and women, workers and the comfortable middle class. August Sander's Boxers. Paul Röderstein and Hein Hesse (ARS/Metropolitan Museum, c. 1928)It shows how they defined themselves in the dress codes of their class, their occupation, and an older world. It evokes a way of life that was already vanishing, as an older order endured a world war only to give way to a fragile republic.

Yet he does see them as individuals, starting with the frontal poses that make them impossible to overlook. Sander does not seek Germany in the halls of power or the narratives of an older photography and an older art—although he did photograph a member of parliament and a political prisoner. His subjects smile or frown as they see fit, and even their inability to move appears today as an act of compassion. It frees them from putting on a show, and it allows them something visible to call theirs, in their appearance and the house or shop front behind them. Photos also include paired and group portraits now and then, like a restless and stoic boxer as distinct versions of a shared way of life.

Compassion helps all the more after so many decades, when what Sander took for universals have become particular and quaint. Born in 1876, he began with the idea of “mankind in general” and its characteristics. He sorted people into archetypes as part of the whole, first in his native village of Westerwald and then in Cologne—many published as Face of Our Time in 1929. Now they appear in an ample selection reprinted by his son, Gunther, at Hauser & Wirth uptown through June 17. It was a project in sociopolitical economy, at a time when Marxism was in the air and sociology was being born. It also coincided with the rise of psychoanalysis, including Carl Jung and his archetypes.

In time, though, supposed archetypes become stereotypes. They become even more so in their titles. The types include distinctions recognizable from political and gender critique in the present—like “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” and “The City.” Yet they also include “The Lost People,” “The Sage,” “The Philosopher,” and “The Man of the Soil.” What seemed scientific then borders on sentiment now. Maybe the search for archetypes always will.

The photos survive as more than stereotypes because of their imperfections. Sander insisted on “honesty” rather than the perfect moment, as the very requisite to a systematic view. He makes no effort to alter the dull or dour expressions. He embraces the stiff folds of peasant costumes, the boastfulness of a top hat, and the stains on a varnisher’s apron. They make for more richly textured photographs and a further reminder, like a video of Sanders at work by Omar Fast, that their subjects are long gone. If one ever doubted the vulnerability of the Weimar Republic, one can see it again here.

It seems more vulnerable, too, in light of “Small Trades” by Irving Penn, in his retrospective at the Met. Penn’s photos dwell on broad gestures and the tools of the trade. Sander includes props far less often, and they remain subordinate to the archetype and individual. The varnisher holds a tin without showing off, while an alert hound stands in front of the man in the top hat as just another part of his boast. Where Penn makes portraiture of act of stagecraft, Sander makes it an act of remembrance.

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