August Sander and Seydou Keïta, Portraiture and Social Identity @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): A total of 55 black and white works by Seydou Keïta and August Sander, generally framed in black and matted, and hung in the main gallery space (with a dividing wall) and the side book alcove. There are 19 images by Keïta, taken between 1950 and 1959, most of which are modern or posthumous prints; there are 4 vintage prints (much smaller in size) and 1 self portrait on view in the side room. There are also 36 images by Sander, taken between 1910 and 1929; these prints were made by Gerd Sander in 1994, in an edition of 3. (Installation shots at right.)

Comments/Context: The second show at the Walther Collection Project Space matches the iconic portraiture of German photographer August Sander with 1950’s portraits made by the Malian studio master Seydou Keïta. For most collectors, both of these bodies of work will likely be well known, and one might think that as a result, this show would be somewhat tired; on the contrary, their familiarity doesn’t diminish the resonance between them in the slightest, and in fact, when seen together, I saw facets of each that I hadn’t noticed before.

The pairing highlights the idea that both photographers were capturing societies in flux. In the past, I had tended to look at Sander’s portraits individually, seeing the greatness of isolated single portraits of various types of people, all captured with Sander’s signature deadpan, unembellished, frontal style. When seen together as a group, I started to see the societal movement in between the portraits that Sander was actually documenting. In the beginning, there are stern farmers and country families, matched with coal miners, priests, and rural schoolteachers. But as the society began to change and more people moved to the cities, suddenly there were new occupations to document: bohemians and revolutionaries, writers and painters, politicians and more middle class families. In this period of time (1910s and 1920s), German society was being transformed from rural to more industrial/urban, and Sander’s project captured much more of this wholesale national change than I ever really understood.

Keïta’s photographs come at this same idea, but with a much different stylistic approach. 1950s Bamako was a place where traditional African society was mixing with post-colonial Westernism, creating a melting pot of visual and cultural influences. Keïta’s portraits capture the aspirational aspects of his clients, their desire to create an identity, to be modern. Juxtaposing vibrant African fabrics with bold patterns (as backgrounds) with Western props like cars, radios, handbags, and sunglasses, he made posed portraits that found the essence of the mood of the times, with one foot in the past and one in the future. I particularly enjoyed seeing the intimate vintage prints in the side room (yellowed and wrinkled from age), as they seem to be a more authentic representation of Keïta’s process than the larger, more contrasty modern prints.

Both sets of images consistently document formal dignity and grace, an almost regal quality that has nothing to do with wealth or station in life. Steely eyes peer out and tell stories of hopes and dreams and of the constraints of life in a changing world. Even though you’ve likely seen these images before, the quality of portraiture on view in this small show is nothing short of superlative, and the pairing makes both richer from the comparison.

Collector’s POV: Since this is a non-commercial space, no prices were available for the works on view. Keïta’s prints come up at auction from time to time, but very few are vintage; prices have ranged from roughly $2000 to $15000 in recent years. Sander’s prints are much more available in the secondary markets; there are portraits, landscapes, and later prints/portfolios made by both Gunther and Gerd Sander. As a result, prices vary widely, from as little as $1000 for lesser known images to more than $100000 for iconic vintage portraits.

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Read more about: August Sander, Seydou Keïta, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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