A selection of more than 250 photographs of August Sander's life’s work “Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts” (People of the 20th Century) formed an independent part of the exhibition about Germany in the 1920s. This unique group portrait of German society during the Weimar Republic stands as a classic in both European photographic and art history.
August Sander (1876-1964) truly embarked on his ground-breaking documentary project ‘Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts’ (People of the 20th Century) in the mid-1920s out of the desire to document and classify “all the characteristics of the universally human”. Here he set out to portray both prominent and anonymous Germans from all parts of society in a simple and matter-of-fact pictorial style, while dividing them into seven categories.
Sander’s monumental image atlas, which exemplifies distinctive ‘types’ in order to let the individual step into character at the same time, constitutes a unique group portrait of German society during the Weimar Republic. Though he would lose the larger part of his negatives in a fire in 1946, his project is so all encompassing, courageuos and ambitious, that it stands unrivalled in European art and photography history.
SEVEN GROUPS OF SOCIETY
Sander divided his typology of German society into seven groups: the farmers, the artisans, the women, the social classes, the artists, the city and ‘the last people’. Altogether, the photographs present a cross-section of society from the peasants and their manual power to the revolutionaries in the cities, the authorities and the marginalised.
One of the approaches he used in the project was to portray everyone with the same dignity and the same strength. This sociologically aware method means that the hierarchies and structures in society emerge clearly, and one senses the change that German society underwent with modernisation.
BURNING BENEATH THE SURFACE
Sander allows all his fellow-Germans to pose, head on to the camera, enabling them to offer a considered rendition of themselves in their natural habitat – the smithy, the drawing room, the back yard, and the bare wall.
A special sense of belonging thus seems to permeate Sander’s art, burning beneath the surface of the photographs. It has been speculated that this may also account for the curious lack of bewilderment that his subjects betray in their moment of isolation before the lens.
Subsequently, Sander’s project has proven inspirational for generations of photographers, such as American photographers Walker Evans (1903-1975) and Diane Arbus (1923-1971), whose works were presented at Louisiana in 2022.
MAN WITH A MISSION
August Sander (1876-1964) was born in 1876, the son of a mine carpenter in Herdorf in Westerwald. A common strand running through all his photographic activity was his close links to the rural population.
After some years of education and work in Linz in Austria, August Sander settled in Cologne. From there he went out in the weekends to the villages in Westerwald, where he worked as an itinerant photographer. A decade later his farmer portraits marked the beginning of his ambitious photographic project Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century).
Soon after the National Socialists seized power in 1933, it became evident for August Sander that he would not be able to complete his grand project. In 1936, the original printing blocks for his book Face of Our Time were confiscated and destroyed. Nevertheless, Sander managed to continue working as a commercial portrait photographer.
However, with the outbreak of World War II, the Sanders were forced to seek shelter in the village of Kuchhausen. Even though August Sander’s studio was destroyed in an air raid in 1944, his archive of 30,000 negatives stored in the basement initially survived the bombing. However, most of them were lost in a fire in 1946. Beside his prints, Sander only managed to bring some 1,800 negatives with him to Kuchhausen, which served as the basis for his reconstruction of ‘People of the 20th Century’.
All works shown on this page by August Sander: © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; VISDA, Copenhagen, 2022/23