“In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated.”
Like Edward Steichen and others, documentary and portrait photographer August Sander was fortunate to be born at the time of photography’s ascendence. As such, he would go on to become one of Germany’s most notable men behind the lens.
Sander was the son of a carpenter in the Herdorf mining industry. It was in the mines where he was first exposed to his future love, working as an assistant to a company photographer. Noticing his burgeoning interest, Sander’s uncle would buy his first equipment and set up his first dark room. This led to spending his three-year military stint as a photography assistant wandering across Germany. From here he garnered a job at a studio in Linz, where he ascended to partner and eventually its sole proprietor in 1904. After five years in Linz, Sander moved on to Cologne, his primary home for the rest of his life.
While Sander’s work spanned everything from landscapes, architecture, nature, and street photography, he is best remember for his collection of portraits, People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts). The series was an attempt to photographically explicate society of the Weimar Republic. According to the Oxford University Press, the theme for the project was cultivated from his portraits of Westerwald farmers. Sander saw them as an example modern men and a part of the cycle of society. For Sander, the peasant class was the foundation. Next was the skilled class, intrinsic to civic life: this included lawyers, members of parliament, soldiers and bankers. The third rotation was the intellectuals: artists, musicians and poets. Finally, there were the ostracized and stigmatized- insane, gypsies, and beggars – to complete the cycle.
Sanders project would take years to finish and hardly lacking in its obstacles. In the thirties, the Nazis chafed against the activism of Sander’s son Erich. After imprisoning Erich and sentencing him to 10 years in prison (he never was free again, dying in 1944), Sander’s first publication of his People venture, Face of Our Time was seized and the 60 plates destroyed. Their rationalization for such destruction was the work did not adhere to the Aryan ideal. His studio in Cologne would also be destroyed in 1944 due to the bombings of World War II. Luckily, he had vacated the city two years prior for a more rural area, which saved the majority of his negatives. At the time, his archive was tipping 40,000 images.
Sander would pass away in Cologne in 1964. Today his work is prized for its insight into humanity during the first half of the 20th century, both chronologically and culturally. While the photographs did not authentically represent demographic, the simple environment of the photos were always imbued with hints to the subject’s anthropomorphism.
In 2002, the August Sander Archive teamed with scholar Susanne Lange to publish a definitive seven-volume collection of 650 of Sander’s photographs.
August Sander: photographs.