Deadly exposures

Widower, Pastry Chef, Boxer: this is how August Sander chose to name his images of vulnerable human beings. Tom Lubbock reviews his ambitious `People of the 20th Century'

The German photographer August Sander is one of the camera's greats. That's not news, but it still needs stressing. I think he may be simply the best photographer ever. He lived from 1876 to 1964, a good Modernist span, but he's another artist whose career was effectively messed up by the Nazis, and his fame is mainly posthumous. It rests on a single extended work: "People of the 20th Century".

The Sander exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery includes a good deal of other things, too. There are landscapes and flower studies and some striking pictures of bombed Cologne, in which much of his early work was destroyed. But the "People" escaped, and it's the central work. It needs to be seen in quantity. There are about 150 examples here.

"People of the 20th Century": the project sounds very ambitious, but its ambitions are elusive. It promises something documentary and encyclopaedic, and consists of several hundred individual and group photos, divided up into 45 categories, from The Young Farm Worker, via many professional types, to "Political Prisoners" and finally "Idiots", "The Sick", "The Insane", "The Dying". Within these categories, no one is named; they are only given a general identification: Widower, Pastry Chef, Youth Movement, Bohemians, etc.

Etc? The whole thing is obviously impossible, or at least impossible single-handed. Sander could not have hoped to cover the whole century or the whole world by himself, and he used no collaborators. Most of the pictures are from the Twenties and Thirties. His constituency is only Germany. And as for the classification system, it seems idiosyncratic and ad hoc. You can't be sure whether the types or the individual subjects made the going, or whether the subjects are meant to be average examples or allegorical.

In fact, classification isn't much more than a pretext, and the important tension here isn't, as you might expect, between individual and type. It's within the individual. Each one looks both peculiar and peculiarly intense and exposed. The Junior Teacher stands like a stout stump in his uncomfortable jacket. The Student Corps Member sits in fancy uniform, his nervous, alert little face disfigured by proud duelling scars. The two smiling Boxers hold themselves so stiff to attention, they seem about to explode with eagerness. The Grammar School Boy offers a study in studied, insouciant elegance, with his limp stance, elaborate suit and casually dangled cigarette. Do they know, can they imagine, what they look like?

It would certainly be good to know how Sander picked his subjects, what went on between them and him during picture-taking, and what his rejected prints looked like. But I think it's clear what happens. Everyone, whether shot against a neutral studio backdrop or on location, is isolated from their lives. Everyone is consciously posing. These people present themselves, and, doing this, they give themselves away entirely. Powerful and powerless, they are induced to submit themselves, like embodied CVs.

It may be satire, but the effect is not social or moral but metaphysical. The distancing is so comprehensive. You notice local oddities at first - physical, psychological - but then each feature, each layer of each person becomes picked out for attention. Their whole personality and worldly existence is thrown into relief as something odd and contingent. Everything stands out, to imply, somewhere in there, a soul that finds itself so strangely in this actual, historical, undeniable self.

Sander takes photographs sub specie aeternitatis. It's a vision of humanity, but not exactly of common humanity. You look at these images as if they were part of some brochure of life forms, on offer to a migrant soul considering the incarnation options. Thus it is a sort of classification, but from an enormously remote perspective - so remote that there's no superiority in it, because there's no denying that it could equally be turned on you.

`August Sander' is at the National Portrait Gallery (0171-306 0055) until 8 June, Mon-Sat 10am-6pm, Sun 12pm-6pm

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