‘By means of seeing, observing and thinking, and with the aid of a camera and a date, we can capture world history and influence all humanity by means of the expressive potential of photography as a global language.’ August Sander, Photography as a Universal Language 1931.
August Sander (1876 – 1974) was a photographer who lived in Austria and Germany. His aim was to photograph series of ‘archetypes’ that described the Germanic people of his time. To that end he took thousands of portraits of people ranging from labourers, through tradesmen, artisans and professionals to the upper classes of society. These portraits were posed and often showed a background that would help to place the person in their work, such as a bricklayer carrying a hod or a pastry cook in the kitchen. He undertook a major project ‘People of the Twentieth Century’ with the aim of showing the individual as part of society and recording accurately the German people as a whole.
Sander also took many photographs of the countryside around his home, recording both natural beauty and the effects of human activity on the world. He took both distance pictures, such as ‘The Rhine near the Erpeler Ley rock (1930s)’ and details, for example, ‘Grapevine Snails (1930s)’.
A further series he undertook was of details of the human body such as hands.
It has been suggested that August Sander was the forerunner of many of the photographers of the later 20th Century such as Diane Arbus, and indeed he took a similar broad range of people including in his studies midgets, disabled people (blind) and circus performers. His portraits are, however, much more posed and formal and less disturbing than hers.
On seeing a recent exhibition of his work I found that some of his portraits were very memorable such as ‘The Sage’ 1913 who was portrayed looking into space and dressed more like a wise countryman than a philosopher or an intellectual, and the ‘Red Cross Nurse, 1921’ who exuded an air of calm and placidity. There was also some interesting contrasts shown such as ‘The Soldier', 1940’ – newly uniformed and confident as compared with ‘The Non-Commissioned Officer, 1944’ with a rumpled and worn uniform and a ‘1000 yard stare’ in his eyes.