August Sander, spurred by a Marxist painter-friend who believed that all art should mirror the structure of society, conceived the idea of a vast photographic project he called “People of the 20th Century.” Beginning in Germany in the 1920’s, artists, intellectuals, bureaucrats, merchants and industrialists all passed before Sander’s camera. He said “It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people but to create a piece of history with my pictures.” Yet Sander, like Model and Arbus, was psychologically engaged with his subjects and subtly interpreted their social roles.
A similar exploration into the psyche of the individual is evidenced in the work of Lisette Model, a photographer whose work spans three decades, the 30’s through the 50’s. An intensely private individual, Model has fought celebrity but her images of the rich, vacationing idlers on Nice’s Promenade des Anglais brought her national acclaim. In her later work, after her move to the United States in 1938, she delved into the mystery of glamour in America, in window displays, jazz clubs and the circus.
Profoundly influenced by Sander’s work and a student of Lisette Model, Diane Arbus worked in the 1960’s with a hand-held 2¼ camera and found unsettling oddities of lifestyle and personality among “normal people” as often as she did among those defined by society as deviate. All those she photographed are poignant in their willingness to reveal themselves to the camera. Yet her portraits may be a measure of the degree to which subject and the photographer agree to risk truth and acceptance of each other.