AUGUST SANDER: “The Social Mosaic Attempted: The Photographs of August Sander” (2004)


By Clare Hurley, December, 2004

“People of the Twentieth Century”: August Sander’s Photographic Portrait of Germany, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 25—September 19, 2004

A selection of 150 photographs from August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century [Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts] was recently (2004) on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in a traveling exhibition organized by Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne. The show is accompanied by a new seven-volume publication of Sander’s photographs, arranged in a manner that the photographer might have chosen had he been able to complete his massive project.

Together the exhibition and the publication capture the breadth of Sander’s ambition to create a photographic portrait of Germany society in the period between the two World Wars. While several of his most striking images—Bricklayer or Young Farmers, for instance—have achieved iconic status individually, it is within the context of this comprehensive catalogue of social existence that they attain their full meaning.

Sander said, “A successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography… I cannot show [my work] in a single photo, nor in two or three; after all, they could as well be snapshots. Photography is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse.” [1]

Therefore, the arrangement of the photographs, no less than the photographs themselves, was at the heart of what became Sander’s lifelong undertaking. Beginning in the late 1890s as a journeyman photographer taking pictures of the stolid farmers in his native Westerwald near Cologne, then as the proprietor of a commercial portrait studio in Linz from 1905 till 1909, and finally, working independently after his return to Cologne till he was forced into semi-exile by the bombings and other ravages of World War II, Sander took thousands of photographs in the course of his career. (An amazing 1,800 of them have survived.)

Sander developed the remarkable ability to use photography’s strength as an objective record of reality to access, and then highlight, those images that most clearly express essential social relationships. His individuals confront the viewer with a direct gaze, often holding a defining tool of their trade; the formative influence of an individual’s social position is inseparable from who he or she is, making itself felt in his or her intimate nature no less than in public persona. Social class stands before us in all its detail and specificity.

Girl in Fairground Caravan, 1926-1932

In communicating this Sander was remarkable, not least of all because his preconceptions about class relations were somewhat at odds with what he observed and recorded. But he succeeded in doing as an artist what A.K. Voronsky in The Art of Seeing the World describes as essential:

“…to burrow into a thing or person and creatively re-embody himself within them. Then he walks away from daily concerns, from petty joys and sorrows, from clichéd opinions and views; he becomes infused with a special sympathetic feeling, with a sense for the different and unfamiliar life, self-sufficient and independent of him; the beautiful is discovered in things, in events or people, independently of how the artist wants to interpret them.” [2]

As a result, we have the subtle and complex depiction of many social types who had not been given serious consideration in art before, as well as of more traditional ones in a new and sharpened light. Organized by a classification system akin to that of genus and species, the completed People of the Twentieth Century was to consist of forty-five portfolios each containing twelve photographs, arranged in seven volumes that, according to Sander, corresponded to the structure of society. Taken together, they succeed in being a mosaic-like portrait of Weimar Germany.

Farmer, 1932

Sander’s background and early photography.

The social types that Sander photographed reflected his multi-textured and variable social position, a phenomenon not uncommon in the economic upheaval of Weimar Germany. He was born into a family of modest means in Herdorf, outside Cologne, in 1876. Given the mixed mining and farming economy of the region, Sander’s father was typical in working as a part-time carpenter in the mines while running his own farm, and even possessing capital from the sale of a small coalmine.

While maintaining its strong agrarian identity, the Sander household evidently valued the technological advances of industrialization, and considered intellectual and artistic pursuits to be a part of its solid, respectable existence; Sander’s early interest in the new medium of photography was supported.

As a medium, photography in the late nineteenth century was in transition from being a mechanical innovation and curiosity to becoming a means of artistic expression. There was debate between those who thought photography’s future as an art lay in its approximating the look of paintings versus those who saw photography’s strength in its objectivity, its ability to record what the human hand could not render, and the human eye quite possibly could not even consciously register.

In A Short History of Photography (1931), Walter Benjamin describes photography as playing a revolutionary role akin to psychoanalysis by making what he calls an “optical unconscious” accessible to consciousness, thus further extending our knowledge of the world. [3]

The development of the new medium was also impacted by its commercial uses. Photographic portraits, as opposed to the traditional painted ones, had gained a vogue amongst the rising middle classes of the 1880s and 1890s. Even the most humble households boasted a velvet bound album of relatives in their Sunday best posed in front of the inevitable backdrop of velvet drapes and potted palms.

The Wife of Painter Peter Abelen, 1926

By the time Sander set up his portrait studio in 1901, the more sophisticated among the bourgeoisie wanted portraits that better expressed their status and individuality. Art Photography met this taste; artificial backgrounds and standard props were rejected in favor of personalized settings. With technical advances in camera exposures and lighting techniques, naturalistic outdoor scenes also became possible.

In 1907, Sander advertised his services by claiming, “…to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face. Thus I can offer to produce expressive, characteristic likenesses that completely represent the nature of the subject.” [4]

The careful attention paid to the features stamped by “circumstances, life and times” which was his credo as an Art Photographer would continue to characterize Sander’s work, even as his individual subjects became the means of viewing the social group to which they belonged, more than their individuality per se.

The Cologne years

Although Sander did well as a portrait photographer in Linz, in 1910 he moved his family to Cologne, where initial business difficulties led him to augment his commissions by traveling to the outlying farming districts of Westerwald, familiar from his youth.

This was to have profound consequences for his work, which began to take on the nature of a sociological study as much of as a photographic endeavor. Furthermore, the destabilization in Sander’s own career took place under conditions of impending political and social instability. As Germany’s aggressive imperialist ventures were about to erupt in World War I, an accelerated process was underway which would sharpen social relations between the classes as Sander knew them.

His initial understanding of these relations was that of the conservative agrarian petty-bourgeois milieu in which he moved. Society was thought to develop cyclically, beginning with the farmers, who in their closeness to nature were endowed with special wisdom, upwards through the craftsmen whose pride in tools and handiwork kept them in touch with honest values, on from the village economy to the metropolis, which in spite of, or perhaps because of its greater wealth and complexity inexorably led to degeneration expressed by the lost and rootless souls of the Last People. After this fall, a return to the soil and redemption was anticipated.

His early portraits of farmers emphasize the characteristics that Sander felt made them a universal archetype for mankind; they are weather-beaten, but resilient looking, neither blissfully bucolic, nor absolutely ravaged by the elements.

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