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August Sander - Biography and Legacy

German Photographer

Movements and Styles: New Objectivity, Social Realism, Documentary Photography

Born: November 17, 1876 - Herdorf, Germany

Died: April 20, 1964 - Cologne, Germany

August Sander Timeline

"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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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.

Most Important Art

August Sander Famous Art

Young Farmers (1914)

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'.
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First published on 05 Sep 2018. Updated and modified regularly. Information
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