Portraits of an Age Neue Galerie
1048 Fifth Avenue
Through June 6
This splendid survey of photographs from Germany and Austria opens in 1900 and cuts off in 1938 with the beginnings of World War IIa period "that prompted both radical aesthetic changes in the art of photography, as well as sociopolitical upheavals, the likes of which had never been seen before," in the words of the exhibition's curator, Monika Farber. The show's ambition is to reflect these developments through portraiture, and to the degree that it succeeds, it's impressive. But even the simplest sociopolitical thesis is a lot harder to prove on a gallery wall than an aesthetic one is, and it's the latter that has the strongest impact here. Right from the beginning of the show, we see photographers sloughing off old portrait studio conventions and experimenting with viewpoint, focus, cropping, and setting. By the '30s, these subtle shifts had blossomed into a vibrant, inventive, but far from single-minded avant-garde, with work by Lotte Jacobi, Josef Albers, August Sander, Josef Breitenbach, Wols, Umbo, and Helmar Lerski staking out a broad range of approaches to the human face and body. Lerski's theatrical expressionism and Sander's cool objectivity fall at either end of a spectrum that also includes a vast amount of master-race propaganda whose inclusion makes the show's most apt and chilling point.