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Photography Review

A close-up view of everyday people

Top: August Sander’s “Bricklayer’’; above: Rania Matar’s “Sisters and Fan, Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut’’; and Jules Aarons’s “Three Women, Three Baskets, Paris.’’ Top: August Sander’s “Bricklayer’’; above: Rania Matar’s “Sisters and Fan, Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut’’; and Jules Aarons’s “Three Women, Three Baskets, Paris.’’ (Rania Matar (Above); Jules Aarons (Right))
By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / December 8, 2009

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It makes no sense to speak of any one photographer as the greatest of the 20th century. But any short list would begin alphabetically with Henri Cartier-Bresson (there’s a mammoth Museum of Modern Art retrospective coming in April) and end with August Sander.

Certainly Sander (1876-1964) undertook the greatest photographic project in the history of the medium. His “People of the 20th Century’’ was an attempt, at once incomplete and overwhelming, to provide a visual taxonomy of human types. The result was hundreds of portraits that Sander took of his fellow Germans during the first half of the last century - the largest and most memorable portion of them dating from the teens and 1920s.

Thirty-four portraits from “People of the 20th Century’’ are on display at Gallery Kayafas through Jan. 16. They’ve been printed from Sander’s original negatives by his grandson Gerd, who oversees the August Sander Archive.

Two of the portraits, “Bricklayer’’ and “Young Farmers’’ (also known as “Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance’’), are among the most famous images of the century, and deservedly so. “Painter’s Wife’’ and “Painter’’ - who had that awful haircut first, the painter or Brecht? - aren’t far behind. Each exemplifies the single most remarkable thing about this remarkable body of work. Sander’s images manage to convey both universality and an utter specificity of time and place (note the dueling scars of “Fraternity Student,’’ for example, or each sitter’s supersized mustachios in “Master Shoemaker’’ and “Police Officer’’).

As such titles might indicate, there’s something vaguely medieval about Sander’s conception: a reliance on guild and hierarchy at the expense of individualism and personality. He broke down humanity into seven categories: “The Farmer,’’ “The Skilled Tradesman,’’ “The Woman,’’ and so on. The magnificence of Sander’s undertaking, along with the probity, seriousness, and sheer Germanic diligence with which he undertook it, helps obscure just how mad the project was.

Anyone who sees all humanity as falling into types must needs hold a fundamentally static view of existence. Not surprisingly, then, there’s an abiding sense of stasis in these pictures, a kind of gravity that owes as much to morality as physics. Jules Aarons’s work, in contrast, is a marvel of liveliness. That contrast in energy, as well as a comparably humane outlook, makes the 23 photographs that make up “Jules Aarons: V’Natanu’’ an apt pairing with Sander here.

Aarons, who died last year at 87, was by day a distinguished physicist at Boston University. That doesn’t mean there was anything unprofessional about the quality of his work. Paul Klee liked to describe drawing as “taking a line out for a walk.’’ Whether wandering the North End or on professional conferences abroad, Aarons enjoyed nothing better than taking his camera out for a walk.

It’s hard to say which is livelier: the street life seen in these pictures or the curiosity that captured them. A photograph like “Three Women, Three Baskets, Paris’’ is one of many here with a freshness and instantaneity worthy of Cartier-Bresson himself.

Photographically speaking, it can seem as if Greater Boston belongs to Rania Matar this fall, and she’s just sharing it with us. She had pictures in the 2009 “New England Photography Biennial’’ at the Danforth Museum. She’s one of the “Three Concerned Women’’ at the Griffin Museum. She has her own show at Mount Ida College. And there are the nine pictures here (none of them overlapping with the other shows) of her “Ordinary Lives.’’

Matar concentrates on children and women, mainly in her native Lebanon. A picture like “Sisters and Fan, Palestinian Refugee Camp, Beirut’’ is a good example. Ostensibly documentary, it finds room for the artful (the visual play between the hanging rugs and adjacent grillwork) and unaccountable (the looming presence of the fan, the unsettling beauty of the lower girl’s gaze).

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.

AUGUST SANDER: People of the 20th Century

JULES AARONS: V’Natanu

RANIA MATAR: Ordinary Lives

At: Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Ave., through Jan. 16. 617-482-0411, www.gallerykayafas.com

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