August Sander (1876-1964) was one of the greatest and most influential photographers of the 20th century. During his whole career he photographed individuals and groups of people that he then classified according to their occupations and position in society. This lifelong attempt to document the German people resulted in the ambitious project entitled People of the 20th Century.
The exhibition was taken from a major collection of over 170 modern prints, placed on long loan to ARTIST ROOMS courtesy of Anthony d’Offay. The prints were produced from the original plates by August Sander’s grandson, Gerd Sander, who himself is a photographer and master printer. Together the collection of photographs gave a brilliant overview of Sander’s achievements as an artist, photographer and recorder of history.
In the 1920s and early 1930s, a new approach to photography – use of close focus, a greater objectivity and a concentration on modern life – was pioneered in Germany. It closely paralleled the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement in painting, graphics and film, which included the work of Max Beckmann, Otto Dix, George Grosz and Christian Schad.
One of the major figures of the new German photography and a key figure in the history of photography in general was August Sander. Best known for his portraits, which formed the basis of his commercial studio, he set out on an ambitious project to photograph all layers of German society from the farmers and country-people, through the workers, craftsmen, technicians and industrialists in the towns and cities, on to people who were sick and disabled.
Sander’s approach was highly methodical and based on an almost sociological analysis of Weimar Germany. He divided his portraits into seven main groups: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People.
All through his portfolios of portraits, Sander aims to give a truthful picture of the age. Instead of concentrating on just one section of society, he shows the poorest to the wealthiest, the traditional country craftsmen and the city workers. He includes intellectuals, artists and scientists as well as people occupied in a wide range of trades and professions, and the unemployed. His sweep encompasses those who wear Nazi uniforms as well as the persecuted, plus those, such as his son Erich, who are in jail for their political beliefs. Sander also includes those who are disabled, ill and, in a few cases, those who have died.
Sander’s approach to his subjects was typological — people were often only listed by their profession, job or class. Names were usually excluded, even when the sitters were well-known figures in German society. Most subjects wear work clothes, often uniforms, and are occasionally depicted holding the tools of their trade.
Rather than photographing his subjects in their usual environment, Sander chose a neutral background and fairly strong lighting. His sitters face us square on without any particular expression. The consistent format across the photographs allows us to compare and contrast the sitters and to see if any typical characteristics, and indeed differences, emerge. However, Sander also ensures that no subject is reduced to an anthropological specimen; instead he emphasises that these are individuals as well as simply representatives of social classes, trades and professions.
Sander’s style of portrait photography and his typological approach to classifying his subjects have had an enormous influence on modern photography. The work of Diane Arbus, Cindy Sherman, Rineke Dijkstra and Bernd and Hilla Becher follows his example.