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August Sander Photo

August Sander

German Photographer

Born: November 17, 1876 - Herdorf, Germany
Died: April 20, 1964 - Cologne, Germany
"I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people"."
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August Sander Signature
"We know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled."
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August Sander Signature
"Nothing seemed to me more appropriate than to project an image of our time with absolute fidelity to nature by means of photography... Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age."
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August Sander Signature
"In photography there should be no shadows that cannot be illuminated"
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August Sander Signature
"I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves. The portrait is your mirror. It's you."
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August Sander Signature
"No language on earth speaks as comprehensively as photography, always providing that we follow the chemical and optic and physical path to demonstrable truth, and understand physiognomy."
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August Sander Signature
"Pure photography allows us to create portraits which render their subjects with absolute truth, truth both physical and psychological. That is the principle which provided my starting point, I had said to myself that if we can create portraits of subjects that are true, we thereby in effect create a mirror of the times in which those subjects live."
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August Sander Signature
"By sight and observation and thought, with the help of the camera, and the addition of the date of the year, we can hold fast the history of the world."
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August Sander Signature

Summary of August Sander

August Sander is acclaimed for a life-long undertaking known as People of the Twentieth Century. Though it was realized as one single volume only posthumously (through the efforts of his son) his career-defining mission gave rise to the greatest portrait collection of the 20th century. Sander's goal was to produce a comprehensive photo-sociological document of the cross-section - from land workers to factory workers; to artistic and professional elites; to the frail and the elderly - of German society as it unravelled during his own lifetime. Despite the emergence of the new, faster and more mobile, 35MM Leica camera, Sander remained steadfast in his commitment to the heavy large-format camera that used glass negatives and demanded long exposure times. For him the greater detail offered by the latter format far outweighed the benefits of the former. Sander represented all his sitters, whom he identified, not by name, but by occupation or type, with a respectful and unadorned neutrality, and always within their familiar surroundings.


  • Ranked as one of the greatest socio-historical documentarians, Sander's oeuvre is typically defined by its homogeneity and the sheer scale of its ambition. Rejecting all forms of expressionism and romanticism, Sander's portraiture is associated with the rise of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement that gained momentum in German artistic circles during the inter-war years. However, that observation, though quite correct, rather belies the fresh artistic and humanist quality Sander brought to photographic portraiture that had been defined hitherto in its relationship to painting, and by the way it 'described' its subject with the help of flattering backdrops and secondary objects (or 'props').
  • Sander opposed the traditional (some would say 'bourgeois') style of studio portraiture that tried to imitate painting. He favored the glossy paper format used in technical photographs because it offered him the greatest image detail, and even though that preference necessitated the use of cumbersome large plate cameras, Sander remained committed to taking portrait photography out of the studio into the real world. Shooting always from a single perspective - face-to-face as it were - he considered the relationship between location and sitter to be the most essential ingredient for communicating both the status and essence of his or her personality.
  • Sander saw himself very much as a patriot: an agent of, and for, the German people. Very nearly his whole career was devoted to documenting 20th century Germany through photographic portraits of the individuals who would make up an egalitarian montage of the whole of German society. Sander was not however interested in capturing the mystique of his subjects (as was the goal of someone like Edward Steichen, for example). Nor could his approach to his subjects be described as intuitive. Rather, Sander's planned compositions worked always towards the aim of creating an artefact possessed of lasting national posterity. He was able to achieve his goal by using his camera to honor the propriety of the unique individuals that comprised his beloved nation.

Important Art by August Sander

Progression of Art

Young Farmers

Forming part of a series on rural people residing in the low mountain region of Westerwald, Young Farmers (Jungbauern) was taken by Sander in 1914, shortly before he joined the medical corps at the outbreak of the first World War. Arguably his most analyzed image, it was first published in Sander's Face of Our Time collection in 1929, and again, posthumously, in his magnum-opus People of the Twentieth Century.

In the image, three suited young men are seen walking along a rural path, probably on their way to a dance. The men look directly at Sander, yet their bodies are turned away from his camera. This suggests that Sander caught his subjects unexpectedly, or in mid-stride. But that proposition seems a little incongruous when one considers the length of exposure time required of the large format, glass plate camera that Sander used. However, the fact that the subjects posed for the camera - probably aping poses seen in men's apparel and tobacco advertisements - does nothing to distract from the fact that the men's attire defied the archetypal provincial peasant portrait. Indeed, when taking into consideration the time the photograph was taken, and the barren rural landscape in which the young men are pictured, the Marxist art critic John Berger suggested that Sander's image perfectly captured a new generation of country type. Young farmers were now within easy reach of 'aspirational advertising campaigns' and 'travelling salesmen' thus allowing them to 'emulate the higher quality attire of the bourgeois urban class'.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York



The volume People of the Twentieth Century featured more than 500 images. Young Farmers belonged to the first, introductory, category ('The Farmer'), while Matter featured in the last, closing, category ('The Last People'). 'The Last People' is focused on those who occupied the margins of society: namely the elderly, the infirm, the disabled and the mentally impaired. This is one of two portraits, both bearing the title 'Matter', of deceased subjects. In this serene image an elderly woman is shown in profile on her deathbed. The image might allude in some way to the theme of the cycle of life. However, Sander's unambiguous, matter-of-fact, approach to his work suggests that its meaning might be rather more prosaic with Sander simply forcing his audience to confront head-on the inevitability of death. However, when considered in relation to his bigger sociological project, through which he was commenting upon the societal role of the individual in 20th century Germany, the title 'Matter' would seem to suggest that once we lose our value to society we become no more than a collection of particles ('matter') from which no further societal value can be subsumed.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York

c. 1926

The Painter's Wife (Helene Abelen)

In 1926, the artist Peter Abelen, having become acquainted with Sander through their shared association with the Cologne Progressive Artists Group, approached the photographer with the view of making a portrait of his wife, Helene (Abelen). Though the portrait is titled The Painter's Wife Helene's pose is defiantly androgynous. Her slicked-back hair is pulled tightly across her head and Helene grips a cigarette between her teeth. She wears a fitted white shirt, a narrow dark tie and black belt, and baggy white trousers with casual white footwear. She is almost luminous when set against the muted tones of the interior walls; on which, presumably, the works of her painter husband are hung. Helene's gaze is active - confrontational one might say - since she acknowledges the camera (and photographer) by looking beyond it (him, and us).

The Painter's Wife alludes to the changing position of women in 1920s German society. In this image in particular we see the idea of the 'new woman' that gained traction during the liberating Weimar years (1919-1933). The 'new woman' was freer than previous generations of German women, with growing willingness and freedom to abandon the domestic space in favor of a place in the public labor force. Concurrently, 'old' ideas about femininity and dress codes were challenged with modern women increasingly adopting trousers as a more practical way of dressing. Seen in this context, Sander's image captures in time and place an important historical juncture in the societal position of women under the liberal Weimar administration.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York

c. 1928


In 1929 Sander published Faces of Our Time, a book of 60 portraits one of which was Bricklayer. Given his mission to represent 20th century German society as an ensemble, one finds a certain uniformity in Sander's classically composed portraits. As with the Young Farmers, for instance, the unnamed bricklayer engages directly with Sander's camera, though here his whole body is facing us. We get the impression, too, that Sander's portraits might be somewhat intrusive in that the subject/s in question have been interrupted while going about their normal daily business. These observations do not suggest, however, that Sander's portraits of 'types' lacked authenticity. In Sander's worldview the character of the subject/s - or 'sitter/s' - would emerge if the camera was employed to the ends of achieving what he called an "absolute physical and psychological truth" and this truth asked for the cooperation of the subject. It is true that Sander wanted to promote the dignity of his subjects by celebrating their unique contribution to German society as a whole, but that objective simply could not be achieved at the expense of authenticity: "We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there" he stated. In the case of the Bricklayer we are confronted no less by a young man full of prideful working-class defiance.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Minneapolis Institute of Art


Circus Workers

Sander took a series of photographs at Barum's American Caravan Menagerie as part of his Circus Workers series. This popular circus troupe visited the Rhineland cities of Dortmund, Remscheid, and Cologne between 1926-29. In this image a couple of mixed heritage (we might take them to be married if we observe the fine detail that both are wearing rings on their wedding finger) sit together at a table with flask and cups (though they seem to prefer to drink directly from glass bottles). Typically for a Sander portrait the relaxed subjects look directly into the photographer's lens. The woman smiles broadly from under her hat, whilst the man, his muscular arm resting on the portable table, looks rather less convivial. Though it is unclear if the subjects are performers, their attachment to the circus is confirmed by the tarpaulin tent in front of which they are taking temporary relief from their duties. The Art Historian Katherine Tubb observed that "Circus Workers is the only depiction of interracial relations in Sander's work and that its original title was in fact Indian Man and German Woman" (Tubb argued that there was no way of knowing if the racial designations were accurate). It is not then clear if Sander was making a conscious statement about race relations. What is clear is that his objective approach to his art meant that his bohemian sitters were neither exoticized nor eroticized. Rather, Sander shows sensitivity for his subjects by revealing them in such a mundane situation. It was Sander's empathy with outsiders and non-conformists that saw his work fall foul of the Nazis censors.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York



Boxers is a portrait borne of humanism and good-humour. It was taken in 1929 during the Weimar years when boxing was amongst the most popular sports. It shows, on our left, Paul Röderstein, a cruiser-weight district champion, standing beside his grinning, somewhat mismatched, sparring opponent, Hein Heese. Sanders does not name his subjects however since it is enough, for a 'dry' project focused on producing a typology of social class, to know only that they are sportsmen: boxers. Commenting of Sander's portraits in her seminal book 'On Photography', Susan Sontag confirmed indeed that Sander "chose individuals for their representative characters, and that [Sander had] assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks". However, Sander's portrait of boxers, emptied as it is of any kind of sporting aggression, reveals the gentle peculiarities of the human condition and offers evidence that there was, or could be, an added informality and personability behind his portraits.

Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper - Museum of Modern Art, New York

Biography of August Sander


One of several siblings, August Sander was born on the 17th November 1876, in the German village of Herdorf, to Justine and August Sander. Before the family set up their own modest farm, August Sr. earned his living as a carpenter working in the mining industry. August Jr. seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps when, as expected, he took up an apprenticeship at the San Fernando Iron Ore mine in 1889. However, while working at the mine, he was tasked with assisting a technical photographer. The experience proved to be a turning point for the young Sander who became captivated by this new medium for making pictures. Two years later, and with a financial gift from a kindly uncle, an enthused Sander purchased a camera (his first) and some basic dark room equipment.

Education and Training

Between 1897 and 1899 Sander undertook his national service at the Wilhelmine Military in Trier where he was able to hone his technical skills while acting, once more, as a photographer's assistant. On completion of his service, Sander moved between a number of studios - from Berlin to Halle; Leipzig to Dresden - before settling at the Greif Photographic Studio in Linz, Austria in 1901. Though he would soon commit his lens to the goal of "honesty and truth", he first became practiced in the tenets of Pictorialism (the dominant aesthetic style of the day). The following year was a significant year in Sander's life: he took control of the Greif Studio in partnership with Franz Stuckenberg - renaming it the Sander and Stuckenberg Studio - and married his sweetheart Anna Seitenmacher. Meanwhile, Sander's reputation began to build, wining prizes at the Upper Austrian Regional Exhibition in 1903 and the first prize and Cross of Honor at the International Exhibition of Decorative Arts at the Grand Palais in Paris in 1904. In the same year, and following a disagreement with Stuckenberg, he became the sole proprietor of the Linz studio, and a new member of the so-called Upper Austrian Art Society.

In 1907 Sander's four-year-old son, Erich, contracted polio and the Sander family returned to Trier on doctor's advice. Two years later, Sander (done by now with Pictorialism) opened his own portrait studio in Cologne and the Sander family relocated once more. In search of more customers, Sander began to visit nearby Westerwald, a rural territory that, unbeknownst to him at that time, was to be the most important development of his entire career. It was through his portraits of ordinary workers - at that time specifically farmers and peasants - that Sander would be inspired to represent German society in its entirety. In 1911 meanwhile, Anna, who had given August a second son, Gunther, in 1907, gave birth to twins, Helmut and Sigrid, though sadly only Sigrid survived. At the outbreak of the first World War, Sander joined the medical corps in Belgium and France, leaving his wife to run the studio. Anna took on photographic responsibilities too - producing many portraits of soldiers - before August returned from front-line duty in 1918.

Mature Period

In the early 1920s Sander joined the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln) where he made the acquaintance of many artists including Franz W. Seiwert, Peter Abelen and Jankel Adler. This group, an active supporter of workers' and labor movements, were proponents of the so-called New Objectivity(Neue Sachlichkeit). New Objectivity dismissed expressionism and romantic notions of idealism in favor of a style of Social Realism. It was out of his association with the Cologne group that the idea of People of the Twentieth Century began to take shape and by the mid-1920s Sander had self-consciously commenced his magnificent life-long project. Sander's goal was, in effect, to hold a photographic mirror up to German society by producing a comprehensive pictorial document of its people which would eventually be sub-divided into seven main categories (each with sub-divisions of their own): 'The Farmer', 'The Skilled Tradesman', 'The Woman', 'Classes and Professions', 'The Artists', 'The City' and 'The Last People'. Sander's project formed a sociological mosaic of inter-war Germany revealing, in equal measure, newfound freedoms, economic anxieties and social and political agitation. By photographing the citizens of the Weimar Republic - from the artistic bohemian elite, to the Nazis and those they persecuted - Sander's photographs tell of a conflicted cultural landscape: a country characterized by explosions of new creativity, hyperinflation, and political disquiet.

In 1927, in what was a rare overseas diversion, Sander journeyed to Sardinia with the fiction and travel writer Ludwig Mathar. The two men stayed for three months during which time Sander, who co-wrote the book's prose with Mather, took several hundred photographs. Some sixty of Sander's images were then exhibited as part of the Cologne Art Society exhibition of 1927 under the banner Man in the Twentieth Century. His images, which received ecstatic reviews, formed the bedrock of his 1929 publication Faces of Our Time, a publication lent extra credence through the inclusion of an essay by Alfred Döblin, author of Berlin Alexanderplatz (1929), and regarded as one of Germany's most important modern novelists. Indeed, the writer Thomas Mann, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in the same year, said of the collection that it was "a treasure-trove for lovers of physiognomy and an outstanding opportunity for the study of human types as stamped by profession and social class." Sander's reputation was now such that he even wrote and delivered a series of national radio broadcasts entitled 'The Essence and Development of Photography'.

Late Period

In 1933 Sander published a total of five folios in a collection called German Lands German People. The series revealed different areas of Germany, including landscapes and botanical studies (in addition to portraits). Indeed, Sander's interest in Germany's 'undesirables', revealed in his portraits of travellers, vagrants and the mentally ill, did not fit with the Aryan ideal being promoted by the current political regime. It is thought that Sander moved into the new areas so as to avoid unwanted scrutiny by the authorities but despite his attempt to move into more 'apolitical' spheres, Sander's output was curtailed under the relentless march of Nazism. In 1936, the printing blocks for Faces of Our Time were indeed destroyed by the Nazis, and existing copies of his book were confiscated and burned. His family's despair was only heightened when Sander's eldest son, Erich, a signed-up member of the Communist party, was served with a ten-year prison sentence in 1934 (he died in prison in 1944).

Reacting to this most turbulent episode in Germany history, Sander concealed around forty thousand negatives in the basement of the family home in Cologne. The house was however destroyed in a bombing raid towards the end of the war, though Sander still managed to salvage some 10,000 negatives from the ruins before relocating to nearby Kuchhausen. The move marked a new period in his professional life, and Sander was free once more to work on his sociological mission.

Sander's portraiture was the subject of an exhibition in Cologne in 1951. The exhibition was attended by the American photographer and curator Edward Steichen and the meeting of the two men proved to be the beginnings of Sander's rise to international fame. Steichen, who was at that time director of New York's MoMA's Department of Photography, selected some of Sander's work to be displayed at an upcoming exhibition in 1955. 'The Family of Man' exhibition at MoMA - where Sander stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shizuo Yaramoto and Dorothea Lange - became a momentous cultural occasion intended to symbolize international unity in the fallout of the Second World War. In the same year, the City of Cologne bought Sander's portfolio project 'Cologne as it Once Was'. In 1960, three years after the death of Anna Sander, Sander was honored with the Cross of Merit and the Prize from the German Photographic Society. He died four years later in Cologne aged 88, his People of the Twentieth Century project still in progress. Sander's surviving son Gunther continued his father's work however and a complete People of the Twentieth Century was finally published in 1966 with Gunther respecting his father's episodic structure for the completed project.

The Legacy of August Sander

Venerated for his meticulous attention to detail, and his objective approach to his subjects and their lived environments, Sander's portraiture imposed itself on those social-documentarians who followed. Rather than try to reveal 'the soul' of his subjects, Sander's goal was to consciously define people within a particular field of time (history) and place (geography). His influence impacted on the American socio-realist photography of the thirties - not least Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans - who, to almost universal approval, used their cameras to compile a pictorial archive of the plight of rural workers during the Great Depression. Closer to home, Sander's influence has been felt in Germany too. He inspired the work of Conceptual artists and photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher who, over a period of some forty years, sought to expand Sander's People of the Twentieth Century project by photographing German architectural and industrial structures and presenting them in a series of typographies. As founders of the influential Düsseldorf School - through which a whole new generation of photographers, including Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, passed - the Bechers helped consolidate the position of Sander in the pantheon of great photographers, and, indeed, the pantheon of great German artists. One of Sander's most famous photographs, Young Farmers (1914), was in fact the inspiration for Richard Powers's 1985 novel, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
August Sander
Influenced by Artist
Friends & Personal Connections
  • George Grosz
    George Grosz
  • No image available
    Marta Hegeman
  • No image available
    Anton Räderscheidt
  • No image available
    Alfred Döblin
  • No image available
    Franz W. Seiwert
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

Useful Resources on August Sander

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"August Sander Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 05 Sep 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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