Thoughts about my fathers life
In the larger scheme of things our lives are just a short indulgence. Like a flash of light. Like a photograph.
My childhood relationship with my father was one of absence. Dad worked and traveled a lot. It would take decades for me to understand the impossibilities of balancing the building of a gallery business with the raising of a family. I wrote to my father at the end of high school explaining the lack of connection I felt. It was not an accusation or an indictment, it was more a question of wether or not we could change it.
In the summer of 1988 my family was in the process of packing up the Sander Gallery on Greene Street in New York as my parents were moving to Germany to build the August Sander Archive. On the hottest day of that summer my dad comes in and says that we all should take the day off to rest. He was going to take me uptown.
We took the subway up to a museum in mid town. I don’t remember which, but I think it was the Met but it may have also been the Whitney. We walked through an exhibition together and enjoyed the art and the air conditioning. Afterwards we went to a diner which I remember as being on Madison Ave. then we walked back to Soho through the heat of the city and talked. For me this was the day I really met my dad.
Through the years that followed we would continue the conversation. When I entered the art world our conversations became more frequent. Dad would constantly call and ask how the gallery was doing, or how the kids are, or where we should go for lunch next. He gave me some rules to follow, but most of them were understood from his example already. The more I could carry the more he would give me to carry. A passing of the torch from one warm hand to another.
We discussed many things. August was a constant topic. It was good to understand what dad saw and understood in his grandfathers work. The legacy of August Sander is different from inside the family. Every generation has had an impact. August , the maker. Gunther, the publisher. Gerd, the researcher. Of course all were extraordinary darkroom technicians, each with unique interpretations of the negatives. They were all excellent photographers.
Gerd is the last one of us who learned directly from and spoke with August. He is the last Sander who will make prints of August Sander’s work. In his wisdom dad made prints of August’s most important negatives. The prints, made together with life long friend Jean-Luc Differdange are exquisite and honour both August’s artistic intent as well as his demand for quality.
The medium of photography owes a debt to my father. He opened the Sander Gallery in Washington DC in the late 1970’s and brought European photography to the American museum landscape. In that time the museums had national funding. The curators were fascinated by photography as you could get a lot more pictures for the same amount of money. They were also easier to store. My father, with his infectious passion and deep technical knowledge would explain to the collectors exactly why a given picture was so important and wonderful. And so a great number of fantastic photographs found their way into museums through the US and Canada as well as other places in the world together with an invoice from the Sander Gallery.
This phase in the photo art market was one of friendship. Dads first show, Lisette Model was just such a story. Mom and dad, late framing and hanging pictures, were frazzled. In comes Harry Lunn from stage left with a six pack of cold beer and a bag of Chinese carry out. You need to eat! This was the comradery that was understood among those who understood the medium.
It was in this ideal that my brother and I grew up. Artists, collectors, curators and other luminaries of now would stay on our couch and have dinner with my parents. My brother and I, would sit at the table and , well … we would try to ignore the boring shit the adults were discussing. None the less a whole lot stuck. It instilled an understanding that art is about community and communication. It was about the importance of the work. The (little) money that was there was needed to grease the gears, but it was always about the pictures.
Dad used to give me a random box of pictures to look through. He asked me to pick my single favorite photograph. Not 2 or 3, one. The skill of seeing was being trained together with the courage to choose. A valuable lesson. It was one of his methods of teaching which I later learned to appreciate.
We have become so very used to the act of taking pictures that we have lost our understanding of the power and language of how we take a picture, of how we view something in order to photograph (understand) it. This makes us less aware of how we are influenced by the pictures we see and how they inform us. Photograhy really is special. The physicality of how to make the picture and what that means for us seeing that picture connects us to a point of view, a viewpoint if you will. It is so much more subtle than all other mediums. A bit lost at times in an art world filled with the emotional excesses of contemporary art. Although the primality of a great deal of contemporary art is much more enjoyable with greater visual literacy. It’s a bit like reading a book you loved in your youth again when you are older. Nuances become visible that were hidden before.
This is the mindset I grew up in. This is the legacy I carried on when I opened my gallery. This is the magic that Gerd Sander was so very passionate about.
Fieret understood the photograph to be a record of the art. Dennis Oppenheim understood this as well. Indeed, the question of art is if the whole artwork is in the idea and the object just serves as the record thereof? The idea of the artist genius as first formulated in the Renaissance is bound to the idea that the artist is more important than the craft. This of course assume a degree of skill. The quality of skill has been decreasing for decades now, unfortunately, but the idea is still king. It’s a quandary, but what are we to do? The idea of selling just an idea will eventually abstract itself into nothingness. Finally it will break because an idea un-manifested is nothing.
Gerd Sander’s life was an idea manifested. It was more than that of course, but as an analogy his life was like a photograph taken. It was with a viewpoint, it shone light on something he felt to be important. It has and still does commune with those who saw it, who experienced it (him). And so I am happy that, at the end of Gerd Sander’s life the picture that remains is beautiful, complex, subtle and full of details to discover.
We had a good run, dad and I. I will miss him.
Julian Sander 5.June 2021