New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 8 March 7 to 13, 2012

Portrait Masters
August Sander and Seydou Keïta
Portraiture and Social Identity
Don Burmeister
Untitled by August Sander. Source:
Seydou Keita, "Untitled" 1953-55

If you are looking for a large, post-structuralist-conceptual show, the Walther Collection is not the place to go. Portraiture and Social Identity, a show of photographs by August Sander and Seydou Keïta is replete with that bugaboo of the hermeneutics set, engaging content.

Within the rather Spartan confines of the Walther Collection Project Space are to be found three worlds: Weimar-era Germany, photographed by August Sanders in his life-long project to record the ‘Face of Time’, late-colonial Mali, where Seydou Keïta operated a portable portrait studio in Bamako, and, of course, 21st century New York. Finally, we complete the photographic exchange by taking a deep look at these faces and clothes, perhaps indulging in that secret vice by being both moral judge and fashion policeman.

Both August Sander (1876-1964) and Seydou Keïta (1921-2001) are well known photographers whose work has been recognized around the world, but the curator, Okwui Enwezor, has chosen wisely and we get the spirit of both along with some surprising parallels, the most uncanny being two studied portraits of three young men, each with cigarette and wary glances.

Young Farmers by August Sander. Source:
August Sander, "Young Farmers" 1914

Both photographers were well aware of that most basic portrait technique–shooting up at the subject–we see Keïta bent over his field-camera in the reflection from a shiny car in one photo. Sanders deviates from this practice only a few times: once in an exterior photo of ‘Revolutionaries’, three bushy young men crouched on a stoop, and again in a dual portrait of two ‘Bohemian’ men, perhaps the most subtle of editorial comments by someone who was recording as objectively as could.

Sander was interested in recording workers, so there is more variety of dress in his portraits, but this was a more formal age, so even three young farmers out for a stroll seem dressed up to us. While the cut and fabric of the clothes of other sitters was a clear sign of social class.

Keïta was being paid by the sitters, and they generally seemed to be wearing some of their finest. The richly patterned robes and headdresses of the women, contrasted with the richly patterned fabrics of the backdrops, form Keïta’s signature style. But the men were equally proud, most carefully showing their wrist-watches and just-shined shoes.

In the end however, it‘s the faces that matter. Perhaps it was the row upon row of pasty-faced men and women in Sander’s pictures that caused the Nazi’s to burn his work. And in a beauty contest between Sanders and Keïta the Malian men and women would certainly come out on top. But, truth be told, neither measures up to our 21st century, Photoshop CS5.5 view of the world. Yet another reason to spend time with these two masters of their craft.

August Sander and Seydou Keïta
Portraiture and Social Identity
Curator: Okwui Enwezor

The Walther Collection Project Space NY
526 W 26th St. 7th Fl
Chelsea         Map

212 352 0683

Thursday, September 22 to
Saturday, March 10, 2012
Hours: Thurs-Sat. 12 to 6