German artist August Sander captured nuances of society and class through portrait photography. His oeuvre, which also encompasses landscape, architecture, and urban streets, was significant in the development of 20th-century photography for its lucid aesthetic that has been described as presaging conceptual art.Read More
August Sander first encountered the photographic medium when assisting a photographer in a mining company, and throughout the course of his career he would remain true to human subject-matter in society, later associating with the radical artist group the Cologne Progressives. Linked with the workers' movement, the group sought a Constructivist style that was politically engaged and embraced the avantgarde. It has been argued that Sander's 'precise, unembellished photographic aesthetic' asserted the medium's separation from painting—a feature that 'presaged conceptual art'.
This fidelity to producing truthful images is manifested in Sander's portrait series, 'People of the 20th Century', which he began in 1911. Prior to that, he was stationed in Trier at the Wilhelmine Military between 1897 and 1899, where he assisted at a photography studio, before travelling around Germany and arriving in Linz in 1901. Sander joined another studio in Linz, where he later became a partner.
In 1910, Sander relocated to Cologne-Lindenthal, where he established a studio taking photos of individual subjects. This body of work evolved into 'People of the 20th Century', his magnum opus, from which 60 photographs were taken and published in the book Face of our Time in 1929. August Sander's book contains an opening essay by Alfred Döblin entitled 'On Faces, Pictures, and their Truth', and contains the following sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People. In 1927, 100 photographs from People of the 20th Century were exhibited at Kölnischer Kunstverein.
Sander encountered great personal struggles after the era of the Weimar Republic. In 1936, the Nazi regime destroyed the photographic plates of Face of our Time. Two years earlier, Erich, his eldest son, was arrested and sentenced to ten years in prison for distributing anti-fascist leaflets in association with the Socialist Workers' Party, dying just before his release from a ruptured appendix. Around 1942, August Sander relocated to the countryside, taking most of his negatives with him. During a bombing raid on Cologne in 1944, his studio was destroyed, and 30,000 of the negatives that survived this raid perished in a fire in Cologne in 1946.
Sander worked very little as a photographer after World War II, and later died in Cologne in 1964. In 1971, his son Günther produced 110 original prints from 'People of the 20th Century', which were shown in Mannheim in 1973 in an exhibition titled Men without Masks. In 1997, five photographs were reselected from this show to feature in an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London, curated by Gerd Sander and titled August Sander: In photography there are no unexplained shadows! A volume featuring 650 of Sander's photographs was published in 2002 by scholar Susanne Lange and the August Sander Archive.
Biography by Tessa Moldan | Ocula | 2019