The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Two Typologies
August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher
A Dialog
Ed Barnas
Photo by August Sander . Source:
August Sander, "Nun" 1921

I first experienced August Sander’s portraits of “People of the 20th Century” via the lush gravure reproductions in Camera magazine back in the 1970s. The images enthralled me both by their simple direct approach to the subject and by Sander’s attempt to catalog all strata of German society in a series of emblematic individual portraits. It was also in the pages of Camera that I was first exposed to the industrial typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. While I appreciated the formal appeal of their individual images, reducing their image grids to fit within the constraints the printed page detracted from a fuller appreciation of their work.

Photo by Bernd and Hilla Becher . Source:
Bernd and Hilla Becher, "Water Tower, Neville Island, Near Pittsburgh PA" 1980

I have since seen prints of Sander’s work as well as of the Bechers’ but never in “conversation” as at the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. Curated by Hilla Becher, the two bodies of work are interspersed throughout the gallery – not as single images but in groups, on alternating wallsThe Bechers’ industrial images are presented in rows of individual large-format (30x36) silver gelatin prints (an approach they adopted in 1989 as an alternative to their earlier grids; visitors seeking a look at a grid presentation can peek through a glass door into the back conference room). Covering the last forty years, these images expand the typologies of water towers, grain elevators and other industrial sites beyond the borders of Germany into the rest of Europe and the US. The images retain the documentary aesthetic of their earlier work (overcast skies, minimal shadows, absence of people) and concentrate on form. Interestingly, the water tower images on display show a greater structural variety overall than that of the grain elevators. Breaking from the 20th century industrialism of most of their work, Hilla Becher has included a set of four images of much older buildings, two from Rothenburg ob der Tauber, one each from Katznback and Herborn. I could easily see some of Sander’s subjects inhabiting these old structures.

Photo by August Sander . Source:
Installation view showing work of August Sander at Silverstein Gallery," 2014

In place of the usual single row of framed prints, Hilla Becher has grouped twenty-eight of Sander’s images in grids, subtly reminding the viewer that in his series “People of the 20th Century,” Sander had originally imposed his own typology on the images he created: peasants, skilled workers and professionals, intellectuals and artists, and closing with the Letzte Menschen – The Last Men, the insane, beggers and gypsies. The images chosen for display include some from his book Face of Our Time (1929) as well as others taken as late as the 1940’s.

Photo by Bernd and Hila Becher . Source:
Installation view of work of Bernd and Hilla Becher at Silverstein Gallery, 2014

The Sander silver gelatin prints are small by current standards, about 10 high x 5 to 7-in. wide (printed by his grandson, Gerd Sander, in 1990-91). They “read” quite well within the grid presentation. Some of the groupings are visually obvious – the soldier above the aviator, the priest above the nun, the grid of children’s portraits. Others are intriguing: a 2x2 grid with a fashionable secretary in an upper corner contrasted with a master locksmith, a café waitress, and a dowdy real estate agent. Another 2x2 grid presents several of his full-length group portraits – workmen and street musicians above a dour assemblage of urban missionaries and a pair of blacksmiths. The image of the street musicians in this set offers a nice little surprise. While the main subjects adopt the formal pose so typical of Sander’s work, a young girl peeks out of a window in the background, smiling at the scene below – a bit of unexpected spontaneity in an otherwise strictly ordered society.

Photo by August Sander . Source:
August Sander, "Street Musicians"

The relaxed pose of this young girl contrasts with the formal poses of middle class and farm children, some smiling, others frowning, in a 2x3 grid in the main gallery space. These children face opposite another 2x3 grid, one full of somber professionals and artists. The intervening walls host four of the Bechers’ grain elevators opposite the four framework houses mentioned above. In each of these linear groups of four, three images are striking similar in vertical form while the fourth one is horizontal, forcing one to look for the less obvious similarities in the typology.

Photo by Bernd and Hilla Becher . Source:
Bernd and Hilla Becher, "Rothenburg ob der Tauber"

So what is this dialog about? While both Sander and the Bechers created cohesive catalogs and amassed a large number of negatives, their subject matter is quite distinct. Sander sought to create a picture of the human face of his society, deep in a state of flux, through individual portraits. The Bechers started by seeking to preserve the disappearing landscape of mid-century German industrial architecture in visual assemblages highlighting the commonalities of design arising from function. However, as Hilla Becher has shown in this installation, the individual portraits of August Sander can be reinterpreted and interconnected within the typological structure of the grid. And the mass of exemplars in the earlier grids she and Bernd assembled can be simplified into a smaller subset for an effective linear presentation. In the language of data analysis one can say that two disparate data sets structures have been reanalyzed and shown to be amenable to similar visualizations due to common inherent structures.

August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher
A Dialog

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