Portraits with personality — and still lifes with it, too
August Sander (1876-1964) is one of the supreme photographers in the history of the medium, and his “People of the 20th Century” may be the supreme photographic project. In it, he sought to provide a cross-section of German society through portraits of individuals he found representative of various professions and types.
The nature of society in Wilhelmine and Weimar Germany being what it was, the subjects of those portraits are preponderantly male. Arlette Kayafas had the excellent idea of offering a selection of female portraits drawn from the seven volumes of “People.” The images were printed by Sander’s grandson between 1990 and 1995.
Two of the 23 photographs on display are as famous as any of Sander’s best-known male portraits. There’s something vaguely medieval about Sander’s categories. They’re like guilds: “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman.” Yet “Painter’s Wife (Helen Abelen)” looks almost ferally up to the minute. Taken in 1926, it will look as at home in the 22d century, one suspects, as it does today. That’s no less true of the subject of “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne,” from 1931.
The two women are a world removed from some of the others in the Sander show. The latter include a nun, a Red Cross nurse, and a confirmation candidate. Each is closer in spirit to the 19th century than the 20th, let alone the 21st. Actually, Helen Abelen and the secretary have more in common with the people seen in Jess T. Dugan’s “Every breath we drew.” “I’m thinking of this as a Möbius strip covering a hundred years,” Kayafas says of the juxtaposition of the Sander and Dugan shows. Those two women are the strip’s half-twist.
Sander wanted individuals who represented types. Dugan is after idiosyncrasy and personality. Yet the subjects of her 29 color photographs, nearly all of them portraits, can be seen as belonging to a type, too — this one far more familiar than Sander’s categories. Dugan’s subjects are for the most part young bohemians. Hair is cut short, body piercing is common, so are tattoos. There’s a sense of calm to Dugan’s photographs. They’re cool without being detached. Her subjects have stories to tell. She’s too good an artist not to hint at that, while at the same time circumspect enough not to pry.
Dugan has three photographs that show possessions — boots, pillows, jeans — rather than their possessors. These images fit in with the portraits, though, since she manages to invest the items with such a strong sense of personality. Something similar happens in Paul Cary Goldberg’s “In My Solitude.” The photographs are still lifes, shot against black velvet, with a rich lusciousness of color that’s almost overwhelming. These pears and hydrangeas and onions and grapes and hunks of bread — even the bowls and baskets and pitchers they share space with — take on something like an emotional weight.
AUGUST SANDER: Just Women
and JESS T. DUGAN: Every breath we drew
Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave.,
through Oct. 11, 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com
IN MY SOLITUDE: New Photographs by Paul Cary Goldberg
Pucker Gallery, 171 Newbury St.,
through Oct. 5, 617-267-9743, www.puckergallery.com