“Photographed images,” Susan Sontag has written, “do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it.” Nothing could be more true of the two photography exhibitions now on view at the Getty Center. The first of these, “Mexico: From Empire to Revolution,” chronicles the industrialization of Mexico in the late 19th century and the decade of revolution that followed in the early 20th. The second, “August Sander: German Portraits, 1918–1933,” documents the many facets of German society and culture in the time of the Weimar Republic. Both depict unusually precarious moments of history: nations torn between the heady fervor of revolution and the material desecration of war, fragmented by the struggle of opposing regimes and defined by an unstable sense of national identity. Both represent cultures balancing nervously between decadence and poverty, their politics a swelling whirlpool of competing ideologies.
“Mexico: From Empire to Revolution,” assembled by the Getty Research Institute, is a two-part exhibition. The first part, which closed in January, covered Mexico’s brief occupation by France in the 1860s and the documentation of Mexico‘s ancient ruins by French explorer-photographers of the time. The second half begins with the election of President Porfirio Diaz in 1876 and provides a photographic account of the industrialization that occurred in the course of his 34-year rule. Most of the photographs on display from this period were commissioned to promote tourism and attract foreign investment; they depict peaceful city streets, villages and seaports, as well as railroads, bridges and monuments built by the Diaz government. Not surprisingly, these photographers generally steered clear of politics in their portraits as well as in their landscapes, masking popular discontent with celebratory images of the aristocracy or idyllic glimpses of peasant life.
If these early images strike some viewers as dull — as tools of conservative propaganda, they’re really bound to be — the tone of the exhibition changes drastically around 1910, when it launches into revolution narrative that is astonishing even by Hollywood standards. In that year, Diaz consented to a democratic election only to then imprison his opponent, Francisco Madero, on charges of rebellion and declared himself the winner. This action set into motion a wave of revolts that forced the exile of Diaz and proceeded according to a bafflingly convoluted web of allegiances and deceptions among half a dozen would-be leaders, including Madero, Alvaro Obregon, Pancho Villa, Victoriano Huerta and Emiliano Zapata. Most of the photographs in this section were produced by international photo agencies and marketed as post cards. Catering either to supporters of a particular faction, who would have been heartened by images of military victory, or to a U.S. audience that viewed Mexico as a stage for violent entertainment (some traveled to the border in trainloads just to witness the fighting), many of the images are downright harrowing: corpses of soldiers and horses scattered in an empty plaza; a circle of men with handkerchiefs to their noses to block the smell of the mutilated body at their feet; a dead man lying almost naked on a hospital bed with a handwritten caption that reads, “Pancho Villa Killed July 20, 1923,” and an arrow pointing from the caption to the dead man‘s head.
The wall texts tell these parallel histories — political and photographic — in a respectful, academic voice without understating the problematic role of the U.S. government or overlooking the contribution of women and indigenous people to the revolutionary cause. The photographs themselves, however, tell the most dynamic story, because they are literally relics of that story: the very images that narrated the struggle as it was being fought, memorializing leaders, soldiers and corpses alike.
Around the time that the Mexican Revolution was stumbling toward its messy end — achieved less by a decisive victory than through the eventual murder of all but one of its competing leaders — an economically devastating defeat in World War I prompted a revolt in Germany that forced the abdication of the emperor and established the democratic Weimar Republic in 1919. The period that followed (from 1919 to 1933) was a time of rich cultural activity, in which, according to the exhibition brochure, “politicians and artists alike set their sights on a new order.”
When portrait photographer August Sander (1876–1964) returned from service in the war, he set about constructing this order in photographic terms by literally cataloging the German people. Influenced by the pseudoscience of physiognomy, which was undergoing a revival at the time, he believed that character was contingent on physical type and might be easily read and understood through the photographic portrait. His initial vision was a series titled “Citizens of the 20th Century,” which would include several hundred images organized into what he saw as the seven primary levels of society: farmers and village residents; skilled craftsmen and working men; wives and mothers; educated and professional men; creative artists; itinerant city dwellers; and the mentally ill and disabled. These categories represented the cyclical development of civilization, with creative artists at the apex and the mentally ill at the nadir.
In historical retrospect, such a deterministic system seems more than a little creepy. Physiognomy is bizarre enough as a quaint 19th-century miscalculation, but when aligned with the destructive potential of fascism, which was gaining momentum as Sander worked, it takes on a far more ominous tone. Unlike the racist philosophies of Hitler, however, Sander’s vision was ultimately a compassionate one, embracing a wide variety of people. (Indeed, the Nazis aggressively disapproved of his pursuit, confiscating all available copies of the one book he did publish and keeping him from publishing the project in full.) In the context of the Weimar period, “Citizens of the 20th Century” is a fascinating amalgamation of Modernist concerns, such as the need to establish social order in a politically chaotic time, the longing to understand the nature of the human experience after a psychologically harrowing war, and the desire to rebuild Germany‘s national pride in the face of international disapproval by staking a claim in the European avant-garde.
It is a somewhat gratifying irony that the photographs depicting the “types” that Sander most honored — laborers, professionals and creative artists — are the least interesting of the lot. These images feature mostly white men, often bedecked with the tools of their trade, calmly posing in impersonal studio settings. Far more compelling are those subjects that Sander seems to have not known what to do with: circus performers, blind children, carnival revelers, working women, beggars, and the more rebellious or effeminate of the artists. These people, perhaps unfamiliar with or uninterested in the intricacies of Sander’s social vision and usually not pinned against his white studio wall, bring a wonderful degree of honesty to the photographs. They confront the viewer with evidence of the culture‘s marginalia — its sensuality, its illness, its forgotten citizens, allowed briefly, in this unique period of cultural and political self-interrogation, to step out of the shadows. A multiracial group of circus performers posing outside a trailer have thick, knowing bodies, and faces as rich and bruised as plowed earth. A pair of blind girls — one with a distant, vacant gaze, the other pointing her empty eyes proudly at the camera — stand with their arms tangled possessively, communicating in a language of touch we can only wonder at. A woman in drag stands in a wood-paneled room, lighting a cigarette with a swaggering “new woman” air. With her hair slicked back, her handsome Nordic features are defiantly androgynous, and her gaze is brazenly languorous, sultry and reckless.
Photographic portraits are elusive things, as alluringly intimate as they are ultimately impenetrable. In the case of these two exhibitions, where the portraits are fragments of history as well as personal images, documents as well as art, they transcribe the richness of their times with remarkable immediacy. Each image seems to contain, in Sontag’s words, an actual piece of the history, in all its hope and desperation.