From 1st February to 7th April, 2013 the Fondazione Stelline of Milan will be hosting a great exhibition that brings together the German photographer August Sander (Herdorf, Germany, 1876 - Cologne, 1964), one of the most important figures of 20th Century photography, with contemporary American photographer Michael Somoroff (New York, 1957).

The exhibition, entitled Absence of Subject, curated by Diana Edkins and Julian Sander, organised and promoted by Fondazione Stelline in collaboration with ADMIRA, presents 40 photographic works by Sander, taken from the celebrated series People of the 20th Century, and 40 photographs by Somoroff accompanied by 8 video, which represent a moving tribute to the work of the German maestro.

People of the 20th Century was gradually created by Sander as a sort of catalogue of mankind that represents a pluralistic vision of the society of the Republic of Weimar, far removed from the myth of the Aryan race. The series is divided into seven sections: Farmers, Skilled Tradesmen, Women, Classes and Professions, Artists, The City, and The Last People (the homeless, veterans, etc.). Somoroff took these photographs and modified them from a conceptual point of view, digitally erasing the human figures to reveal the essence of the places – silent streets or empty interiors – and emphasise, through the absence of the subject, the relationship between man’s presence and his environment.

From each of the original shots Somoroff removed what might be considered the ‘essential element’ – the subject, the portrait – keeping only the surroundings. Thus the background, which to Sander represented a secondary element, now becomes the main subject, and the photographs are transformed into works conceived in a completely new way. Through a conceptual, but also humanistic, approach, Somoroff has been able to reveal the essence of the settings and the intrinsic relationship between man and his environment. This action may appear arbitrary, but it shows how deeply Somoroff has understood the lesson of the German maestro, who refused to be limited to the mere portraitism that was common to part of the photography of his day. Thus Somoroff demonstrates the persuasive and aesthetic power of Sander even in the absence of the human subject; while he successfully conveys the horror vacui of quiet streets or the silence of empty rooms in houses, the representation of the features typical of the society to which they belong remains unaltered.

As curator Diana Edkins says, “Absence of Subject is a poignant homage to the photographer August Sander’s monumental work People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20 Jarhunderts). It is a thoughtful and passionate meditation on memory, imagination, human resilience and creativity.”

August Sander (1876 Herdorf, Germany - 1964 Cologne) is regarded as the most important portrait photographer of early 20th-Century Germany. Of humble origins, he learned the art of photography by assisting a professional photographer who worked in the mine where he was employed as a labourer. He studied painting at Dresda and in 1902 he opened his first photographic studio in Linz. In the ‘20 he joined the ‘Group of Progressive Artists’ in Cologne and began to plan a project for creating an actual ‘catalogue’ of society through a series of portraits of German men and women of his day and of the professions of the period. The whole project was only published in 1980 in the now-famous book People of the 20th Century, which is divided into seven sections: Farmers, Skilled Tradesmen, Women, Classes and Professions, Artists, The City, and The Last People (the homeless, veterans, etc.). His first book, Face of our Time (1929), contained, in fact, only a first selection with sixty shots.

During the Nazi regime, Sander suffered numerous restrictions and acts of oppression, which culminated into violence against his son Enrich, a member of the Socialist Workers' Party, who was condemned to ten years’ imprisonment and died shortly before being released. In 1936 the copies of Face of our Time were seized and the photographic plates destroyed, and Sander was forced to abandon his project. He then began to concentrate mainly on portraits of the countryside around the Rhine (1934-1939, published in book form only in 1975) and the city of Cologne (1935-1945, object of the 1984 posthumous publication Das alte Köln). In 1944 Sander’s studio was destroyed in a bomb raid, along with 40,000 negatives. He retired to Kuchhausen in Westerwald and his name was almost forgotten until 1951, when he exhibited his works at the international fair Photokina and his entire collection of city views was purchased by the Stadtmuseum of Cologne. In 1964, the year of his death, he received the culture prize of the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Photographie, but the real turning point in introducing his work to the public was the great retrospective organised in 1969 by the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Michael Somoroff (New York, 1957) was born into the profession and he has been an enfant prodige of photography. In 1979, in fact, at only twenty-two years old he held his first personal exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York, under the supervision of Cornell Capa, which launched his highly successful career. Subsequently, he opened his own photographic studio and began to work for the leading magazines of New York and Europe. Like many artists of his generation, Somoroff was influenced by the revolutionary philosophy of Alexey Brodovitch, who encouraged experimentation and innovation. In 1980, he moved to Europe, where he worked in London, Paris, Milan and Hamburg, collaborating with Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Stern and LIFE. Meanwhile, he continued to develop his personal work, travelling throughout Europe and in North Africa. His most important masters include Brassaï and André Kertész.

Existential philosophy, religion, theory of language, psychology and postmodern deconstruction remain the main themes of his work. Since returning to New York, he has concentrated on his artistic production of research. His works are featured in numerous collections worldwide, including MoMa - Museum of Modern Art of New York, the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston (Texas) and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. Somoroff conducts didactic activities and collaborates regularly with various cultural institutions, creating programmes that use art to improve communication between people and the communities in which they live. In 2006 he was appointed to create a large sculpture, Illumination I, for the area outside Rothko Chapel in Houston, the only other artist besides Barnett Newman. In 2011 the exhibition ‘Absence of Subject’ was first presented in complete form during the Biennale of Venice.

Fondazione Stelline
Corso Magenta, 61
Milan 20123 Italy
Ph. +39 02 45462411

Opening hours
From Tuesday to Sunday
10 am – 8 pm. Closed Monday

€ 6,00 standard
€ 4,50 reduced
€ 3,00 schools