I'm wondering if anybody has seen this book, and if so, what you can tell me about its quality, especially the quality of the reproductions...? Schirmer-Mosel is usually pretty reliable in that respect, but it's never wise to take too much on faith.
In a way, I'm haunted by Sander. At the end of 1982, beginning of 1983, I saw a show at the Corcoran in Washington called "August Sander: Photographs of an Epoch (1904–1959)." Geoff Wittig spoke the other day about going to see the New Topographics show "obsessively," and I certainly visited that Sander show "obsessively"—the school I attended was in the museum's basement, and there was even a back way up. I'd go meditate on Sander prints that winter the way some people go outside to take cigarette breaks.
I don't think I've ever seen a better illustration of the old dictum that you've got to see original prints—and that reproductions (and now, online JPEGs) are no substitute. Even the prints made from Sander's original negatives by his son Gunther (or were the modern prints made by his grandson, Gerd? I don't recall now) don't measure up. The original prints were so...soulful. I was deep into learning how to be a printmaker at the time—I later earned my living as a custom printer, and that expertise (largely anachronistic now) is what led me into writing for darkroom magazines—and Sander's charcoally blacks seemed fathomless somehow, more like darkness than like paper. I've never seen prints quite like his, before or since.
Sander was famously attempting to photograph "types." Of course his people are not types, they're individuals. But I think the key to his great project (one of the great beacons in photo history arguing the merits of pursuing a consistent, persistent long-term project) is that his sociological ambitions allowed him to cut through the usual petty tyrannies of portraiture. They allowed him a crucial documentary distance. Let's face it, most portraits have a purpose—they're either made for some client or they're made for some specific reason. Their purpose is almost never just to show what someone looked like on the particular occasion the picture was taken. Sander's portraits are connected, representative, and objective, in a way that modern ironic art photographers often reference but seldom equal.
Sander's "sociology" had a spiritual aspect too—after all, his lifelong muse and guide was Goethe.
In Sander's case I've actually preferred to own cheap books, where the reproductions forthrightly do not pretend to measure up to the originals. Books with higher aspirations seem less honest somehow—by implicitly purporting to represent the work faithfully, their lies go underground, become furtive. Poor reproduction flies its inadequacy like a flag, and doesn't put on airs.
I never did buy, and have not seen, the 7-volume set. I've heard a few things about it, both good and a little more reserved than that, but I'm too cheap to drop that much money just to find out for myself.
Still, every so often I get a hunger to revisit Sander, and I find myself, in my mind, heading up the back stairs at the Corcoran again, to go visit those rows of prints alone....
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.