- The Washington Times - Friday, June 25, 2004

The Phillips Collection’s landmark “August Sander: Photographs of the German Landscape” is the first exhibition in the United States devoted solely to the nature photos — from panoramic landscapes to tiny flowers — by the artist regarded as the father of contemporary German photography.

Exhibit curator Stephen Bennett Phillips has beautifully mounted the show’s 30 black-and-white photos — on loan from local collectors Kent and Marcia Minichiello — in two small galleries whose soft gray-green walls evoke the outdoors. He groups photographs according to the areas where they were shot. For the most part, they surround the photographer’s home base of Cologne, near Germany’s picturesque Rhineland-Palatinate.

Assisted by a map of present-day Germany (which would have been better placed near the entry to both rooms), visitors can see images from the dramatic Wolkenburg region mounted on two walls. “View From the Wolkenburg, Winter,” captures a long mountain vista on a misty, snowy-rainy day. Here, Mr. Sander reveals his mastery of tonal whites and grays, from the white of the hill in front that’s repeated in some of the valleys to the soft grays of the receding mountains.

The photographer framed “The Wolkenburg” by clustering a group of jagged, menacing rocks at the photo’s right. A sharp drop below leads the visitors’ eyes to a river and towns. As in most of his works, Mr. Sander included a human presence within the natural world.

“In his landscapes, he tries to show the results of natural and human forces,” Mr. Phillips explains in the show’s accompanying catalog. “Landscape,” the curator adds, “is a part of a country’s national psyche, and Sander was as interested in documenting the German landscape as inventorying its people. His ambition was to create a systematic portrait of Germany as a people and a place.”

Raised in a small village near Cologne, where he accompanied his herbalist mother in searching for plants, the young Mr. Sander also worked with his father in the mines, which gave him a valuable knowledge of the insides of the Earth.

Influenced early in his career by 19th-century romantic writers and painters such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), Mr. Sander (1876-1964) also inherited the gothic medievalism of the 15th- and 16th-century Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.

Later, after setting up a studio in Linz, Austria, in the early years of the 20th century, the photographer abandoned his early romantic style in favor of an unblinking objective realism owing much to the careful naturalism of Albrecht Durer, the 16th-century northern German artist. In precise botanical studies such as “Brassicaceae,” where tiny flowers emerge from the edge of a rock, one sees Mr. Sander’s attraction to the combination of the scientific and artistic exemplified in, say, Durer’s detailed “The Great Piece of Turf.”

Until recently, critics and the public have focused on Mr. Sander’s portraits of German men and women, as seen in his well-known catalog “People of the Twentieth Century.” Starting as early as 1910, he shot countless images for the project during some 40 years. The photographer divided Germans by social type into seven categories: the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artists, the City and the Last People. He always dressed them and set them in environments that would reveal their characters. In the Last People, Mr. Sander focused on the disabled, mentally ill, elderly, dying and dead — people who would not fit the Nazis’ idea of the master race.

The Phillips Collection exhibit demonstrates in no small way that Mr. Sander thought of his landscapes and trees as portraits and that he shot them with the same expressive realism with which he did his portraits of people. Visitors can look at his “Beech Tree,” featured on the cover of the catalog. The tree appears to be dying with the falling of its upper branches, yet the strong trunk, though humped, commands the tree to live for many more years.

These “portraits” of landscapes, trees and plants reveal a new side of the photographer’s genius — one that’s been neglected for far too long.

WHAT: “August Sander: Photographs of the German Landscape”

WHERE: Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Thursdays; noon to 7 p.m. Sundays. Closed Mondays. Through Sept. 5.

TICKETS: Weekday admission to the permanent collection is free, with suggested contributions. Summer special exhibitions and permanent collection on weekends: $8 for adults, $6 for students and seniors 62 and over. No charge for visitors 18 and under or museum members.

PHONE: 202/387-2151

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