August Sander/Bernd and Hilla Becher: A Dialogue @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A paired show of the woks of August Sander and Bernd and Hilla Becher containing a total of 42 black and white photographs, hung against white walls in the entry area, the front gallery, and the main gallery space. 28 of the works are by Sander, made between 1913 and 1940 and printed later by Gerd Sander. Physical sizes are roughly 10×7 and the prints are available in editions of 12. The other 14 works are by the Bechers, made between 1978 and 2006 and generally printed later. Physical sizes are roughly 24×20 (or reverse) and the prints are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Sometimes an exhibit could benefit from a more descriptive title. August Sander/Bernd and Hilla Becher: A Dialogue – that’s the title of a paired show where the differences between the artists are so obvious that it’s hard to immediately understand what brings them together – in short, they need to have a dialogue.

I wish this exhibit had instead been titled August Sander/Bernd and Hilla Becher: A Mathematical Proof, as that’s really what is going on in this fantastically cerebral show. Let’s walk through the steps in curator Hilla Becher’s crisply elegant visual analysis:

  1. If photographs are taken of a common subject with meticulous attention to formal consistency, the collection of images will form a reconfigurable database. This database can then be displayed in multiple ways to highlight the attributes of the subject.
  2. If a single image is shown in isolation, it will naturally act like a “portrait”, showing off individual characteristics of the particular subject. Or, if i = 1, the outcome is portrait.
  3. If images are shown in groups or grids (AKA “typologies”), they will create a conceptual framework of commonality, where “types” will highlight patterns of similarities and differences from a universal model. Or, if i > 2 (or perhaps 4), the outcome is a visual classification.
  4. Regardless of the underlying subject matter, if such a systematic approach is applied methodically to the creation of the included imagery, the database will behave in this structured manner.

And with a grand sweep of an arm, the exhibit at hand. QED.

The reason Becher’s visual proof (in the form of this show) is so conceptually compelling is that she has inverted the “normal” way we are accustomed to seeing these iconic photographs – images by August Sander have been arranged in typological grids, while those by the Bechers have been singled out and hung far enough from each other so as to function as stand alone entities. And yet even in this unlikely “opposite day” staging, the works function with a perfection that is uncanny. Which brings us back to why such a powerful outcome has occurred or is even possible.

For both artists, it begins with astonishing compositional and intellectual rigor. Whatever adjectives we choose as we unpack their individual conceptual frameworks more fully (mechanistic, controlled, ordered), the attention to precision is what enables their “systems” to function when applied across large numbers of images/subjects. For Sander, the lofty goal of creating a universal portrait of humanity (in his People of the Twentieth Century) was realized by systematically documenting various occupations, with particular attention to the details of social class. For the Bechers, the preservationist impulse to capture the richness of vanishing industrial and vernacular architecture was realized by systematically documenting various functional buildings, with particular attention to their sculptural details.

Part of the reason both projects have functioned with such long lasting efficiency is the manner in which both artists managed the process of image making. For Sander, his subjects were generally centered in the frame, in straightforwardly natural poses, alternately in situ and set against blank backdrops. For the Bechers, their subjects were even more meticulously centered in the frame, always in situ, but with specific attention paid to the camera angle, the cloudy day light, and the cropping out of other distractions to create a uniform look. In both cases, their common deadpan formality, stripped of personal artistic flourishes, has become a kind of anti-style of its own. In subsequent years, many have tried to emulate the methodical rigor of Sander and the Bechers, but very few have succeeded, and it’s the reason we see so many second rate typologies floating around today – absent the dedication to extreme precision, the conceptual framework starts to lose its punch.

What makes this show exciting is that it upends our expectations for these bodies of work – after all, people are supposedly individuals and buildings are supposedly anonymous. When hung in pairs and grids, however, Sander’s portraits start to highlight patterns in humanity. At the simplest level, we see the commonalities of groups of children (dressed up, with toys and animals) and participants in war/religion. Deeper looking reveals further surprises – whether you are a high school student or a member of parliament, there are nuances to how you hold your hands. Blank backdrops show off the similar upright posture of a real estate agent and a café waitress, while sidewalk portraits of men bring out subtleties of long coated dress. Seen this way, individuals become data points that can be categorized and organized, each group revealing unexpected layers of commonality and variation without regard to social status, background, or vocation. Stand a group of missionaries or farm workers together, and you’ll get a remarkably similar portrait.

As a corollary, when the typological grids of Becher industrial sites are broken up, each structure draws our singular attention. Water towers from Germany, France, New York, and Pittsburgh hardly seem like relatives at all, given their differences in design and framing – holding tanks are alternately spherical, half-spherical, conical, and tubular, all with unique forms of supportive bracing. Grain elevators are sequentially made of concrete, corrugated aluminum, and wood, each material leading to divergent sculptural forms and exterior patterning. Even older style vernacular homes, with peaked rooflines and layers of windows, show off their individuality via balconies, framing, and irregular placement of openings. Seen this way, we focus not on their universal patterns, but the architectural quirkiness of each structure.

This smart show exposes the parallel conceptual framework that underlies the work of Sander and the Bechers, and it does so with a visual economy that clarifies the proof being made. It’s structural thinking at its most powerfully refined, an exacting exercise in selecting a theorem and outlining the evidence for its applicability.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The Sander prints range from $4500 to $6000 each, while the prints by the Bechers are $30000 each. Sander’s photographs are widely available in the secondary markets, including 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/later print images to more than $100000 for iconic vintage portraits. The Bechers’ work is also consistently available at auction. Prices for single images have ranged from roughly $3000 to $35000 in recent years, while typologies have ranged between roughly $25000 to $180000.

Read more about: August Sander, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Bruce Silverstein Gallery

One comment

  1. Pete /

    Wow, brilliant review

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