Portraiture

November 30, 2009
August Sander - Berlin Coal Carrier, 1929

Berlin Coal Carrier, 1929

When it comes to portraiture, two of my favorite photographers span almost a century. August Sander, born in 1876 and Katy Grannan, born 1969. Sander was German and Grannan is American. It is the social element to both photographers that I’m interested in, yet both work in very different ways. Sander brilliantly documented his People of the 20th Century in Weimar Germany, categorised by social type and occupation, believing that society was organised into a hierarchy of occupations. Some of his participants were photographed at work surrounded by the tools of their trade, others were photographed against neutral or natural backgrounds, such as farmers. White-collar workers were usually photographed inside. He captioned each with the type of work they done and the year, creating a relationship with society and the individual and in doing so, putting a value on their occupation regardless of what it was.

August Sander - Pastrycook, 1928

Pastrycook, 1928

Grannan on the other hand is a portrait photographer. Her earlier work Model American has a rawness that perhaps is missing from her latest work. For Model American, she put an ad in the paper that read “Art Models. Artist / Photographer (female) seeks people for portraits. No experience necessary. Leave message”. The ad sounds like a dating advert, and the overt emphasis on female changes the tone somewhat, and was probably the reason it drew a lot of exhibitionists. Her subjects would decide on location, pose and clothing (some wearing nothing). She shot on a clumsy large format film camera with a light. What is interesting about these is that her subjects, on their own direction, are performing and acting out roles based on fictional events from TV, advertising or cinema often appearing awkward and clumsy. The photographs hint at something much darker and depressing about mid-American life, the drab interiors, small rooms (often showing the ceilings in the image while shooting low), and the unsmiling model. The aesthetic of this work is on a par with high gloss advertising images, yet it’s meaning is a polar opposite. It’s hard not to think of why these people answered the ad, which is why the work resonates with me. I want to know more about the process involved, what was it like? What were the interactions? Did they seem unhinged? Maybe it is precisely the not knowing, which makes the images so intriguing as we read the images with our own baggage, asking these questions, making our own assumptions and constructing our own little narrative.

Katy Grannan - Untitled, 1998

Untitled, 1998

Katy Grannan - Untitled, 1999

Untitled, 1999

Katy Grannan - Wolf, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1999

Wolf, Poughkeepsie, NY, 1999

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