August Sander (1876-1964)

People of the 20th century is a series of photographs by August Sander, who was a German portrait and documentary photographer, in the Weimar and Nazi era. As the title of the project suggests, Sander aimed to record the German society under 7 categories. Namely, The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans). Although the typological is somewhat problematic, it was a genuine attempt to capture the lives of the Germans that time. He wrote,

“[w]e know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled,”

In this sense, he was trying to penetrate each faces he photographed and revealed the narratives or the inner emotions behind them.

He had a great interest in photographing people in a rural milieu and thus started finding his subjects along the road by a bicycle. It was a painstaking approach due to the bulky and vulnerable equipments he carried with him. Nevertheless, this revolutionary method aids producing his ideal of a “non-sugar-coated photographs without gimmicks, poses and false effects”

The images Sander took were mostly portraits with well-balanced composition (a nearly perfect symmetry in some of them) and sometimes a great contrast in its B&W in order to foreground the subjects.

I realized a somewhat peculiar photographs amongst his oeuvre. Rather than obsessively capturing the “faces”, this one shows a “piece” of a face, an eye.

1928. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/16 x 9" (17.9 x 22.9 cm). Gift of the photographer. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The Right Eye of My Daughter Sigrid
1928. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/16 x 9″ (17.9 x 22.9 cm). Gift of the photographer. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

The image is striking in a sense that it suggests the most powerful component on a face to convey emotion or narrative is possibly in one’s eyes. When you are closely examining a face, you will realize how effective can an eye/eyes “speak(s)” . It tells most part of a “narrative”. It defines the tone, the mood. I believe Sander shared this notion and thus shot a series of blind children to explore the possibility of communication by their bodily gestures.

Another image I found fascinating is called The Mother in Joy and Grief,

1911. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 8 11/16″ (28 x 22 cm). Gift of the photographer. © 2009 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn

Look how powerful her eyes convey her emotions which is contradictive to the supposedly joy of the birth of her babies.

Sander’s photographs are not “realist” enough due to the conscious presence of the camera that arguably would alter the photographed and failed to capture “life as it is”. However they are honest, candid and non-pretentious that narrates. In its way to realism, the language of photography needs to be dialectical that constantly be redefined and contradict to previous realist notions. Undoubtedly, Sander’s work is a cut to further realism in this sense.



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