Wednesday Art Idol

August Sander: the pioneering German documentary photographer who captured the face of a nation
By Finn Blythe | Art | 15 December 2021

August Sander, Bricklayer, 1928 © August Sander Estate

This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Wednesday Art Idol

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Widely regarded as one of the most important photographers of the 20th century, August Sander was a generational talent who documented one of the most tumultuous periods in his native Germany’s history. Having pioneered photography as an ethnographic tool, a stethoscope capable of taking a nation’s pulse, his portrait-focused approach has become a blueprint for documentary photographers ever since. 

Born in west Germany’s Rhineland, Sander was largely self-taught after receiving his first camera at a young age and setting up his own dark room. A stint in the military working as a photographer’s assistant confirmed Sander’s vocation and upon leaving in 1900 he spent the next ten years travelling around Germany and working at a studio in Linz, Austria. Returning home in 1910, Sander set up his own studio in Cologne (close to his birthplace of Herdorf). Having worked in the mines as a teenager and spent his formative years surrounded by Germany’s industrial heartland, Sander became interested in the avant-garde concept of Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity, which advocated a return to daily reality within art. Sander developed this idea by taking photographs of labourers and peasants in nearby Westerwald, the beginning of an attempt to document every echelon of society that he would return to after his military service in World War I.

August Sander, Young Farmers, 1926 © August Sander Estate

In the early 1920s, having returned to Cologne, Sander joined the city’s Progressive Artists Group, strong proponents of New Objectivity and a major influence behind Sander’s magnum opus series, People of the Twentieth Century. Building on the portraits he had taken before the war, Sander’s goal was to produce a comprehensive pictorial document of Germany’s Weimar Republic, split into seven main categories: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, The Artists’, ‘The City’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’ and ‘The Last People’. Photographed straight-on in natural light with backdrops, clothing and gestures that alluded to the sitters’ class or profession, the series of portraits are as revealing as any historical record, providing unparalleled insight into Germany’s interwar years, from newfound freedoms to economic anxieties.

Later in his career, Sander’s work moved into more apolitical spheres including landscape and botanical studies so as to avoid the incessant scrutiny of Nazi authorities. His photographs of what he termed Germany’s “undesirables”, travelers, vagrants and the mentally ill, were anathema to the Nazi party and in 1936, the printing blocks for Faces of Our Time (Sander’s landmark publication containing his social portraits) were destroyed by the Nazis and existing copies of the book were either confiscated or burned. Despite this, Sander managed to conceal around 40,000 negatives in his house in Cologne, many of which were later destroyed during a bombing raid towards the end of the war, though Sander managed to salvage around a quarter. Despite never finishing People of the Twentieth Century, Sander’s surviving son Gunther completed his father’s work, with the finished book published in 1966, two years after Sander’s death.

August Sander, Pastry Chef, 1928 © August Sander Estate

Three Young Farmers, 1914

This photograph is one of many Sander took of young farmers as part of his unfinished project People of the 20th Century, although this is among the best known. Like so much of Sander’s work, the gestures and clothing provide important clues concerning the men, their social standing and the historical context in which the photograph was made. 

Wearing their finest suits on their way to a nearby dance, they are part of a new economically mobile generation who emerged at the beginning of the 20th century. As critic John Berger noted, “The three young men belong, at the very most, to the second generation who ever wore such suits in the European countryside. Twenty or thirty years earlier, such clothes did not exist at a price which peasants could afford.”

Taken shortly before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and the onset of World War I, the image also has a more somber resonance that belies its title and the assured expressions of the young men. Looking over their shoulders, without time for anything more than a backward glance, the three stride confidently towards their futures, unaware of their rapidly dwindling innocence and the horror that awaits them.

August Sander, Three Young Farmers, 1914 © August Sander Estate

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