August Sander: Man of the 20th Century

  June –
August 1997

Front cover of a catalogue of August Sander’s photographs.  

August Sander chronicled German society through his monumental project ‘Man of the 20th Century’ .This covered that period between the fall of Kaiser Wilhelm and the rise of Adolf HItler – the epoch of he Weimar Republic. It was never published in one volume, but the exhibition contains an evocative selection of the photographer’s lifework, showing him to have been one of the most important portraitists of the twentieth century.

Tribute of the August Sander exhibition at Gallery of Photography, in the Temple Bar Review magazine, issue 12, 1997

Tribute of the August Sander exhibition at Gallery of Photography, in the Temple Bar Review magazine, issue 12, 1997

Sander’s work is nothing more than a group portrait of an entire people, illustrating the socio-economic conditions in Germany between the two world wars. All of Germany passed before his lens and no profession, class or type could escape his cool, unjudgemental eye.

As always, he searched for the archetype, the person who fulfilled a role in society yet remained an individual human being. To indicate the universal scope of his project, he never listen the name of the subject; the only identification is the occupation or activity of the person. Thus, his photographs also reveal insights which are of great interest within the context of art history, anthropology and communication sciences.

Some people would argue that fascist ideologies were evident in his work, because of how he assigned a value to each person by their occupation or social standing, and how this was not far from the ruthless classification of the Final Solution. As in, each portrait was allotted a grade, then his portraits were organized into a scale ”from the highest point of culture downward to the idiot”. But Sander believed that physical appearance determined one’s economic and intellectual capacity, and therefore aimed to capture the physiognomic image of people, not the psychological study of them. The fact that classification of people existed did not make him stereotypical, it was just simply the truth of how things were. Sander’s genius was to let his subjects appear as they were, to let each face relate to its own history; ”Nothing is more hateful to me than photography sugar-coated with gimmicks, poses and false effects. Therefore, let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age” -August Sander, 1927.

August Sander's photographs. Secretary, Cologne 1931 (left) Hod Carrier, Cologne 1929 (right)

August Sander’s photographs.
Secretary, Cologne 1931 (left)
Hod Carrier, Cologne 1929 (right)

Travelling throughout Germany in search of subjects, Sander’s crime was to expose the myth of the master race. In wishing ”to speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age”, he held up a mirror to the German workplace and revealed the Aryan ideal to be a sham.

He did not glorify the master race, nor even hold up the Nazis to ridicule. Indeed his persecution by the Nazis was due to his ability to depict the truth about his fellow germans. This was not only a violation of the totalitarian state’s propaganda; these truthful pictures were condemnation in themselves.

Inside the August Sander catalogue

Inside the August Sander catalogue