New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 16 May 2 to 8, 2012

August Sander and Boris Mikhailov
German Portraits
Don Burmeister
Dance Teacher by August Sander. Source:
August Sander, "Dance Teacher" 1932

August Sander’s portrait series, “People of the 20th Century”, has an illustrious history and its influence on subsequent German photography is profound. His straight-forward, essentially anthropological approach was a direct influence on Bernd and Hilda Becher, and through them, the current generation of older German photographers such as Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and most relevant to this show, Thomas Ruff.

His work remains as solid and important as ever, and you will certainly see some old friends among the 11 prints on view at the Pace/Macgill Gallery. Rather than focusing on the sitter’s occupation, as was Sanders usual practice, the current show highlights portraits from the late 1930’s titled “Victim of Persecution” as well as portraits by Boris Mikhailov taken in 2008.

Mikhailov’s pictures are a decidedly different turn for the photographer. If you approach this show with Mikhailov’s recent exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art “Case History” in mind (reviewed here) you will undoubtedly be startled. The earlier “Case Studies” emerged from the vodka-soaked, intense nether world of small-town Ukraine, with much of its power coming from the obvious intimacy of photographer and subjects. In the current show, Mikhailev presents formal profiles of theater chorus members from the German city of Braunschweig. Taken while they were preparing a production of Aeschylus’ “The Persians”, needless to say, there is nary a prison tattoo in sight.

German Portrait by Boris Mikhailov. Source:
Boris Mikhailov, "German Portrait" 2008

Seemingly influenced directly by Ruff’s large, unforgiving, passport-photo portraits, Mikhailov has turned his models around 90 degrees, presenting us with large, equally unforgiving profiles of middle-class Germans. Although resembling Police Wanted posters, the stark quality of these portraits is better suited for cosmetic surgeons. A full range of clearly illuminated noses, chins, and ears–– and just ever so slightly, small bits of personality––confront us.

Generally head and shoulder shots, with only a small hint of the models’ clothing, and nothing of their hands, (both important elements in Sander’s 3/4 length portraits,) Mikhailov’s pictures, all titled “German Portrait, do not give too much away. It would have been so much more interesting to know if these people were blacksmiths or cobblers (although retired librarian and western-district sales manager are more likely.)

Though neither disrespectful nor dishonest, still, it is a bit unfair to compare Mikhailov’s work, taken over the course of a few weeks, with the life-long project of August Sanders. Whereas in Mihkailov we see a group of peaceful, somewhat self-satisfied, middle-class Germans, in Sanders we see a world of violence, terror and chaos lying just underneath the skin.

August Sander and Boris Mikhailov
German Portraits

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