Sunday, March 01, 2020

Classified results

Martin Parr In Wales might inevitably have been the biggest draw, but it's worth pointing out that the National Museum Cardiff's Photography Season featured two other equally notable exhibitions, both of which closed today.

August Sander and Bernd & Hilla Becher had more than just a country of birth in common (Germany) - they also shared a meticulous cataloguing approach and a steadfast commitment to projects that were almost absurd in their scale and scope. Sander's People Of The Twentieth Century, in particular, sounds like a ludicrously Sisyphean task - and indeed the project was incomplete when the photographer died in 1964, after 62 years of working on it.

Consisting of portraits of some people whom Sander sought out and some who just happened to come to his door, the project is made up of several themed series. The subjects range from philosophers, artists and businessmen to those who, by accident of birth or subsequent misfortune, found themselves on the margins of society. There is an interesting tension between the fact that the captions generally identify each subject by profession or social status rather than by name, which implies an impersonal (or depersonalising) classification or typecasting on Sander's part, and the fact that such a diverse array of portraits was taken in the first place, which implies that he saw everyone as deserving of the respect and dignity that a formal portrait confers and symbolises, no matter what their social standing.

Collectively, the portraits tell stories - of the gradual shift from rural to urban employment, of the rise of the Nazis (represented by portraits of a soldier, a member of the Hitler Youth and an SS officer) - but there are individual images freighted with narrative too, not least those showing widows and widowers clearly still in mourning.

The tragedies of Sander's own life are also represented. In among the pictures of outlandishly moustachioed policemen, stern and porcine bailiffs, and bricklayers with male model looks and smouldering stares are one of the death mask made for his son Erich, who died a political prisoner at the hands of the Nazi regime, and another of his wife holding his newborn daughter and her dead twin brother. These two poignant images transform a project that is otherwise about other people into something that is intensely personal.

There is, by contrast, nothing remotely personal about Bernd & Hilla Becher's Industrial Visions - not least because people are entirely absent from the photos. The couple's passion was for industrial architecture, so their portraits are of winding towers, pitheads and gas towers. Not the most gripping subject matter, you might think - and if you took each image in isolation, you'd probably be right. However, because individual pictures are grouped together (much as Sander did) in grids of 16, the viewer is able to see the similarities and subtle variations between specific types of construction across Europe and North America - and, after a while, to begin to appreciate the stark beauty of some of the forms.

The Bechers had the foresight to recognise the importance of recording the industrial landscape. At the entrance to the exhibition was an astutely selected quote from their catalogue for the 1971 Nuremberg Biennale: "Just as ... cathedrals came out of the medieval world view and ... castles embody the feudal system, these edifices are to be seen as emanations of our time, as a self-representation of our society." Some of their time was spent photographing in the South Wales Valleys, whose present has been irrevocably shaped by heavy industry. On the one hand, Industrial Visions demands that you look on the mighty works of our ancestors and despair at the fact that so little trace is now left of them; on the other, the photos themselves are valuable acts of preservation, fitting memorials to a past that is relatively recent and yet seems increasingly distant.

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