Historical Photographers: August Sander

As I’m currently doing the first year of my two-year photography course at Croydon College, I wanted to do some research on a large number of historical photographers, and the first historical photographer I will be talking about is August Sander. Please keep in mind this will be a short article as well, as I’m looking to try and publish as many as I can before 2016 opens its doors.

August Sander (17th November 1876 – 20th April 1964)

August Sander was a German portrait and documentary photographer, whose first book: “Face of Our Time (German: Antlitz der Zeit) was published in 1929. August Sander was often described as “the most important German portrait photographer of the early twentieth century.”

August Sander’s Life

August Sander was born in Herdorf, in the Rhine Province and was the son of a carpenter that worked in the mining industry. While he was working at a local mine, August had first learned about photography after he assisted a photographer who worked for a mining company, and with the financial support from his uncle, he had brought himself some photographical equipment, which would help him to set up his own darkroom.

August Sander had spent his military service (1897-99) as a photographical assistant and his next few years wandering across Germany. In 1901, he had started working for a photography studio in Linz, in Austria, and eventually became a partner (1902), and then its sole proprietor (1904). He left Linz at the end of 1909 and had set up a new studio of his own in Cologne.

Over the course of 1911, August Sander had begun with the first series of portraits for his work: “People of the 20th Century”, and in the early 1920s, he had come into contact with the Cologne Progressives, which was a radical group of artists whose works were linked to the workers’ movement, which, as Wieland Schmied had stated, would: “sought to combine constructivism and objectivity, geometry and object, the general and the particular, avant-garde conviction and political engagement, and which perhaps approximated most to the forward looking of New Objectivity […] “. In 1927, August Sander and the writer, Ludwig Mathar, had travelled through Sardinia for three months, where we had taken around 500 photographs, however, a planned book that would detail his travels wasn’t completed.

Release, Controversy & Death

August’s “Face of Our Time” was published in 1929, and contained a selection of 60 portraits from his own series: “People of the 20th Century”, and was introduced in an essay, made by Alfred Döblin, titled: “On Faces, Pictures, and their Truth.” Under the Nazi regime, his work and personal life were greatly constrained, and his son, Erich, who was a member of the Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), was arrested in 1934 and was also sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he had then died in 1944, shortly before the end of his sentence. Sander’s book: “Face of Our Time” was seized in 1936 and his photographic plates were destroyed.

Around 1942, during World War II, August Sander had left Cologne and moved to a rural area, which would allow him to save most of his negatives. His studio was destroyed as a result of the 1944 bombing raid, with 30,000 of his roughly 40,000 negatives surviving the war, only to be destroyed as a result of an accidental fire that occurred in Cologne in 1946. As a result of this, August Sander had, in effect, ceased to work as a photographer after the end of World War II, and in 1964, he sadly passed away at the age of 87 in Cologne.

August Sander’s Legacy

August Sander’s works included landscape, nature, architecture and street photography, but he was best known mainly for his portraits, which were exemplified by his series: “People of the 20th Century”. In this series, he had aimed to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic, and this series was divided into seven sections:

  • The Farmer
  • The Skilled Tradesman
  • Woman
  • Classes and Professions
  • The Artists
  • The City
  • The Last People (Homeless Persons, Veterans, etc.).

By 1945, August Sander’s archive had included over 40,000 images.

In 2002, the August Sander Archive and the Scholar, Susanne Lange, had published a seven-volume collection, which would compromise 650 of some of August Sander’s photographs, and was titled: “August Sander: People of the 20th Century”. In 2008, the Mercury crater, Sander, was named after him.

This brings the first article in the Historical Photographers series to a close. Please feel free to feedback what you thought of this article below in the comments ☺.

Alex Smithson

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