AUGUST SANDER, part one
August Sander (1876–1964) was a German portrait and documentary photographer. He has been described as “the most important German portrait photographer of the early twentieth century”.
Sander was born in Herdorf, the son of a carpenter working in the mining industry. While working at a local mine, Sander first learned about photography by assisting a photographer who was working for a mining company. With financial support from his uncle, he bought photographic equipment and set up his own darkroom.
He spent his military service (1897–99) as a photographer’s assistant and the next years wandering across Germany. In 1901, he started working for a photo studio in Linz, Austria, eventually becoming a partner (1902), and then its sole proprietor (1904). He left Linz at the end of 1909 and set up a new studio in Cologne.
In 1911, Sander began with the first series of portraits for his work “People of the 20th Century”. In the early 1920s, he came in contact with the (Cologne Progressives) a radical group of artists linked to the workers’ movement which, as Wieland Schmied put it, “sought to combine constructivism and objectivity, geometry and object, the general and the particular, avant-garde conviction and political engagement, and which perhaps approximated most to the forward looking of New Objectivity […] “.
Sander’s “Face of our Time” (Antlitz der Zeit) was published in 1929. It contains a selection of 60 portraits from his series People of the 20th Century. In this series, he aims to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic. August Sander became renowned for this work in which he put together hundreds of portraits of people from different levels of society and occupational groups in a series of portfolios developed in a project spanning decades. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander’s archive included over 40,000 images.
Comparative photography and direct observation are expressions that aptly describe Sander’s methodological approach. They also express his intention to produce representations that were realistic and free of preconceived ideas. In the juxtaposition of series of photographs especially, he saw the possibility of drawing attention to the physiognomies and postures that were typical of different occupational groups, genders and generations as well as to the individuality of their members.
Under the Nazi regime, his work and personal life were greatly constrained. His son Erich, who was a member of the left wing Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he died in 1944, shortly before the end of his sentence. Sander’s book Face of our Time was seized in 1936 and the photographic plates destroyed. Around 1942, during World War II, he left Cologne and moved to a rural area, allowing him to save most of his negatives. His studio was destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid. Thirty thousand of Sander’s roughly forty-thousand negatives survived the war, only to perish in an accidental fire in Cologne in 1946. Sander practically ceased to work as a photographer after World War II. He died in Cologne in 1964.
“… we know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled…” August Sander
The world’s largest collection of work by August Sander, is located at Die Photographische Sammlung der Kulturstiftung der Sparkasse KölnBonn. Including more than 5,000 original prints and around 11,000 original negatives, the work of August Sander is presented to the public in the form of publications and exhibitions.
In 2002, the August Sander Archive and scholar Susanne Lange published a seven-volume collection comprising some 650 of Sander’s photographs, August Sander: People of the 20th Century.
This portrait of a widower is the only acknowledgement of death in the portfolio entitled The Family, though not within the whole of August Sander’s photographic opus ‘People of the 20th Century’ to which it belongs. Significantly, Sander includes it in the group ‘The Woman’, suggesting here that she is present by her absence. The bereaved stand close together, the father looking in three-quarter profile into the right distance, perhaps contemplating this missing figure. Flanking him, their shaved heads echoing his partially bald one, his two boys look back at the photographer. Emphasising the magnitude of his loss, the baby-faced widower appears only slightly taller than his sons, whose matching outfits and short pants suggest that they are still children. The widower photographed here also appears in the photograph ‘The Pastry Cook’ (1928) from the group ‘The Skilled Tradesman’.
Sources/More to Read:
Wikipedia: August Sander
Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur
August Sander Foundation
National Galleries Scotland