Since the mid- nineteenth century, photography has played an increasingly vital role in the recording and interpretation of history. One of the most amitious documentary projects ever undertaken was conceived by the German photographer, August Sander.
He took up photography as a teenager, while working at a local mine. He spent his military service from 1897 to 1899 as a photographer’s assistant and, after time travelling in Germany, moved to Linz in Austria, where, in 1901, he joined a photography studio.
He became a partner in the business in 1902, in time returning to Germany, where he set up a new studio in Cologne in 1910.
In the early 1920s, Sander conceived the grand plan that was to become his life’s work: “Menschen im 20 Jahrhundert” (Citizens of the Twentieth Century). Here, he set out to photograph all of contemporary German Weimar society, presenting the nation by type in seven main groups – farmers and peasants, tradesmen, women, professions, intellectuals, artists and the unemployed, the homeless and displaced. The first part of this project was published as “Face of our Time” in 1929. Sander photographed his subjects in part in the formal studio style, but had them pose in their workplaces with the tools of their trades close to hand, or in surroundings appropriate to their class.
By using this direct form of representation in “collecting people from the society, Sander hoped to see an intrinsic natural order emerging through his work. In paying attention to the environmental details, dress and expression, in an otherwise formal manner, his portraits represented a sociology in pictures, a cultural and economic history.
Sander was denounced by the Nazis in 1936. The diversity of physical characteristics revealed in his book did not conform to the Aryan ideal in representing the nation and was seized, banned and destroyed, along with the printing plates. During the Second World War, Cologne was heavily bombed and in 1942, Sander moved to the countryside. His move helped him to preserve his negatives only for him to lose an estimated 40,000 in a fire a few years later.
After the ban of his documentary work, Sander turned to landscape for subject matter, focusing on architecture and street life. However, it is for his street portraits that he is known. Edward Steichen included 45 of his work in his 1955 The Family of Man exhibition.
Although Sander lived till the age of 87, he never completed his survey “People of the 20th Century” was published in 1980, 16 years after his death and in 2002, a new scholarly 7 volume edition comprising of 650 volume of Sander’s “types’ finally completing the work he began 80 years earlier.
Here are a few of the images of the documentary