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Gallery Kayafas opens its twelfth season with a tour de force, pairing German master August Sander’s century-old portraits with those of contemporary American photographer Jess T. Dugan. Their pairing is revelatory, giving viewers a rich historical context that an exhibit of photographers from the same era could never achieve. As might be expected, Sander’s and Dugan’s cultural and individual differences are thrown into sharp relief, which makes their commonalties all the more enlightening. Despite Sander’s intention of objectivity and Dugan’s subjective approach, they share a search for truth through their explorations of identity that provide insight and provoke questions about the very nature that makes us human.
At a time when most portrait photographers aspired to emulating traditional paintings, August Sander (1876-1964) declared, “I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people.” And thus, with a drive bordering on compulsion, in 1911 Sander initiated his decades-long master project, “People of the 20th Century”. Toting a 5×7 view camera by bicycle through the countryside near Cologne, he photographed people from all walks of life, creating nearly 700 portraits that he identified by occupation and systematically categorized into seven groups.
For this exhibit, “Just Women”, Kayafas culled 23 portraits of women from all seven of Sander’s portfolios, encompassing a diversity of roles, from the mundane “Mother and Daughter: Farmer’s Wife and Miner’s Wife” (1912/printed 1990) to the arcane “The Woman of Progressive Intellect” (1914/printed 1990). One of the most curious aspects of Sander’s portraits is the unspoken examination of gender identity. This was definitely not the time to be “out” in Germany, but Sander’s portraits of women, like the fearsome “Painter’s Wife”, with cigarette diabolically clenched between her teeth, “Dance Teacher”, with a distinctly masculine countenance, and “Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne” who, defensively hunched with suspicion, could possibly be a man in drag, tacitly acknowledge the presence of gender fluidity.
Jess T. Dugan makes no pretensions to Sander’s brand of dispassionate objectivity. Her portraits in “Every breath we drew” possess an intimacy that is unmistakably current. In a project that would have been unthinkable in Sander’s day, Dugan’s self-searching evolution as a transgender individual has steered her work, from the uncomfortable longing of her self-portrait in the bath (2012) to her confident self-portrait in a muscle shirt (2013). Dugan’s portrait sessions occur in personal spaces, including beds and bathtubs. Clothing is often absent. Even with their muted, neutral palettes, Dugan’s large color prints produce an enormous impact (sized 24”x20” & “40”x32”, in comparison to Sander’s small B&W photographs, which hover around 8”x10”).
Notwithstanding Sander and Dugan’s divergent approaches to portraiture and despite their radically different emotional tone, Kayafas’ cleverly intertwined display of their work succeeds in revealing delightful commonalities: their use of selective focus to isolate their subjects in the frame, classical portrait lighting (while shooting primarily in natural light) and the deliberate acknowledgement of their sitters with direct eye contact. Most importantly, the interplay of their work emphasizes their common aim of creating truthful portraits.
People are complicated, which makes portraits complicated. Sander achieved important breakthroughs in portraiture within the constraints of his time and his photographs in this show are treasures to behold. Likewise, Dugan’s photographic discoveries in “Every breath we drew” accomplish a moving universality that transcend gender and sexual identity. Both artists have pushed boundaries to attain new levels of honesty. To experience their work together is to appreciate anew the revelatory power of the portrait – that stirring recognition of the humanity that connects us to one another.
This exhibit will be at Gallery Kayafas through October 11, 2014. For more information, directions and hours, go to: http://www.gallerykayafas.com/
For more information on August Sander, go to: http://augustsander.com/
For more information about Jess T. Dugan, go to: http://www.jessdugan.com/
Feature image: “Erica and Krista, 2012”, 20”x24” diptych pigmented ink print by Jess T. Dugan (courtesy of the artist and Gallery Kayafas, Boston)
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