Incorporating Photography into Art History, Starting with August Sander

August Sander, Group for Sherrie Levine Composed by Gerd Sander in 2012 (1911–40, printed 1976–83), portfolio of 36 photographs, gelatin silver prints (© Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur — August Sander Archive, Cologne, ARS, New York; courtesy of Galerie Julian Sander, Cologne; photo by Timothy Doyon)

The exhibition Serialities, presented by Hauser & Wirth and organized with art dealer Olivier Renaud-Clément, is built around the photographic works of August Sander. Born in 1876 in Herdorf, Germany, Sander is commonly thought of as the most significant portrait photographer of the early 20th century. His photographs are posed, his sitters self-conscious, and his images printed in black and white from glass plate negatives. His project People of the Twentieth Century strove to catalogue all of the types of persons living in his proximity during his lifetime.

The aspiration to photograph the People of the Twentieth Century isn’t far removed from the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler’s ambition “to photographically document the existence of everyone alive” or, for that matter, from Taryn Simon’s A Living Man Declared Dead and Other Chapters I–XVIII (2008–11), which traces bloodlines. Retrospectively, it is easy to see in Sander’s work the germ of some of the most important photo-based projects that have followed. The exhibition, Serialities appears to want, once and for all, to drag photography out of isolation and contextualize it within the larger framework of art making.

One saw tentative steps in this direction when the Whitney Museum reopened in its new home with the exhibition America Is Hard to See. Although photographs were still generally sequestered in their own rooms, they were contextualized as part of a larger history rather than being presented as an entirely separate enterprise. It is true that, for decades, certain individual photographers have been considered artists. Many of the Pictures…

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