“I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves.” -August Sander

Starting in photography

August Sander did not have an artistic background. As a matter of fact, he discovered photography by accident while helping a gold mining company’s photographer carry equipment. Sander’s son, Gunter said “…looking through a camera transfixed him — and not just for that instant.”

Working in the mines in 1890, Sander’s hobby was photography. He decided early on that he would make his living as a photographer.

During his military service in 1897 through 1899, Sander worked as a photographer’s assistant and as a photographer taking identification pictures. The work was tedious and not very satisfying, but it gave him an intimate understanding of how to portray a person. He said, “I never made a person look bad. They do that for themselves.”

By 1909 he had opened his own studio in Cologne, Germany.

Oil canvases for all

A painted portrait was too costly for everyday people to afford. August Sander made his living making photographic portraits that appeared painterly, with flattering poses made in the style of the late 1800s.  He also shot commercial work that included architecture. His architectural skills would be shown just before and during World War II as he photographed Cologne.

His life’s work evolved into a social study in portraits of people from all tiers of German society from farmers to the elite.

People of the 20th Century

Over time it evolved into seven distinct bodies of work: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. August Sander described his work this way, “People of the 20th Century is … a declaration of faith in photography as universal language.”

It’s you

On Photography: August Sander, 1876-1964
August Sander, 1925

Sander said, “The portrait is your mirror. It’s you.” He believed that his photographs could show the traits of those in front of his camera. He used those characteristics in his portraits that were storytellers in their stark simplicity of each person’s politics, profession and social status.

Sander made his photographs starting after World War I which had seen Germany defeated. During this between-the-wars time, Sander made photographs that portrayed the rapid changes in German society, the financial worries and, importantly, the political turmoil that would lead up to the beginning of Germany’s expansion into Eastern Europe and ultimately to World War II. Sander created a collective portrait of the German people.

Face of Our Time

Sander’s first book, “Face of Our Time,” was published in the 1920s. Over the following years, he would publish five more books of portraits from different regions of Germany and of Landscapes. “People of the 20th Century” was beginning to evolve.

In 1934, a tragedy that took 10 years to come to a sad end, started with the arrest of August Sander’s firstborn son, Erich, by the Nazis. Erich was a member of the Socialist Workers Party at the time of his arrest and was sentenced to 10 years in a prison camp where he died in 1944 having almost completed serving his time (opening photo, bottom row, far left photo is Erich Sander’s death mask).

Sander, a Social Democrat, never worked against Hitler. He did help his son in publishing anti-regime pamphlets. His photographs of the people just prior to World War II showed a large variety of the German citizenry — from Jews to revolutionaries to ordinary people living in very troubled times.

Ultimately, the Nazis seized Sanders’ “Face of Our Time” negatives and destroyed them. As the War expanded Sander was kept from making more of his honest portraits. He turned to photographing the German landscape and, notably, the city of Cologne. He created a lasting documentary in still photographs of Cologne before it was devastated by Allied bombing and invasion during the last days of World War II.

Sander’s influence

Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon and Irving Penn all drew inspiration from August Sander’s work in portraiture of his fellow Germans. Penn realized that a subject’s dignity was a powerful collaborator in his work. Diane Arbus discovered the ironic effects disturbing images had. Richard Avedon learned the power of confronting his subject head-on to get photos that connected them to their viewers. Jurgen Teller is one of the most important photographers of his generation talks about August Sander for an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth in this video.

“Sander created a vast mirror one in which his subjects — and his viewers — are revealed to be neither beautiful nor grotesque, merely human. They are not faces in time but of time.” – Owen Edwards writing in The New York Times, March 2, 1980.

Sources: Tate Museum, TimesMachine*, Hauser & Wirth

*May require a subscription to The New York Times