We look at the photographs today and wonder how these ordinary people, so apparently like us, could have allowed themselves to be sucked into the monstrous evil hatching itself in their midst while they calmly went about their everyday lives. The photographs inevitably pose the uncomfortable question of whether we would have behaved any differently under similar circumstances.
Sander's great contribution to the art of his time lay in his invention of the archive itself as a single, multifaceted work, one defined not only by its subject matter but also by a rigorous method that governs how each and every image is created.
His work laid the theoretical foundation for such later German artists as Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and others who have continued to explore the possibilities of serial imagery, as well as for a host of postmodern practices that depend on the systematic, even obsessive accumulation of diverse examples to describe a single subject.
There is something both obsessive and slightly mad about Sander's ambition: One suspects he might have gone on to photograph every face in Germany if he were able, and after that the entire planet and its infinite cup of suffering. His curiosity about people was insatiable.
His greatness lies in the fact that he was able to conceive such a magnificent project at all and then carry out a good portion of it before he died, which is perhaps all we can expect of any artist.
What: August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century, A Photographic Portrait of Germany
Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1000 Fifth Ave., New York
When: Through Sept. 19
Hours:Sunday, Tuesday through Thursday 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults, $7 students and seniors
Call: 212-535-7710 or visit the Web site www.metmuseum.org.