August Sander (1876–1964)
"The essence of all photography is the documentary manner". That observation made by August Sander in one of the radio talks he gave on Westdeutscher Rundfunk in 1931 expressed a core belief that shaped his perception of the photographer's role throughout his career.
August Sander is hailed as a major pioneer of what was at his time a new movement in the evolving medium of photography – a movement that still lives on today under the banner of factual documentary and conceptual photography. Born in 1876 in Herdorf (Siegerland), August Sander became renowned for the photographic work People of the 20th Century, realized around 1924, in which he put together hundreds of portraits of people from different levels of society and occupational groups in a series of portfolios developed in a project spanning decades. Parts of that work were shown for the first time in an exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 1927 and published in Sander's first book, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time), in 1929. In that book of 60 portrait photographs, Sander succeeded in creating a portrait of contemporary society that highlighted both human individuality and the typical traits of social and occupational groups as well as examining the reciprocal influence of man and society.
Comparative photography and direct observation are expressions that aptly describe Sander's methodological approach. They also express his intention to produce representations that were realistic and free of preconceived ideas. In the juxtaposition of series of photographs especially, he saw the possibility of drawing attention to the physiognomies and postures that were typical of different occupational groups, genders and generations as well as to the individuality of their members.
Antlitz der Zeit was enthusiastically received, as can be seen from reviews by such commentators as Kurt Tucholsky, Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin, who pointed in particular to the work's informative impact in the light of the threat of National Socialist rule. Today, that insight reads like a premonition of what was to come. Five years later, the printing plates for Sander's Antlitz der Zeit were destroyed by the National Socialists and further sale of the book was forbidden; contrary to many people's fears, however, he was not banned from working as a photographer.
Alongside his extensive work on portraits, Sander continued to devote himself to other areas of photography, such as landscape and architecture. These were areas in which he had always been interested and which now fuelled numerous portfolios. What is more, Sander engaged in an intense exchange with other artists – especially the Cologne Progressives led by Heinrich Hoerle and Franz Wilhelm Seiwert – for whom he undertook innumerable photographic projects. The professional services delivered by the Cologne studio he established in 1911 were also popular with clients from the world of industry and trade.
In the course of a career spanning a total of around 70 years, August Sander studied the nature and development of photography from virtually every angle, looking at technology, choice or composition of subject as well as use and context. His work attests to a deep engagement that resulted in the photographer adopting a clearly defined approach to his medium – an approach that he called "exact photography" and that had its roots in the very early days of photography and the quest to produce an uncompromisingly true-to-life picture of the times. But Sander's ambition went further: his vision was to create a unique body of work with a wide ranging artistic and cultural dimension that would set an example to others.
The world's largest collection of work by August Sander, who died in Cologne in 1964, is located at Die Photographische Sammlung der Kulturstiftung der Sparkasse KölnBonn. In 1992 the photographer’s estate was purchased by the SK Stiftung Kultur (previously City-Treff, the Cultural Foundation of the Stadtsparkasse Cologne) from Gerd Sander (1940–2021), August Sander’s grandson. Including more than 5,000 original prints and around 11,000 original negatives, the work of August Sander is presented to the public in the form of publications and exhibitions (no permanent exhibition).