August Sander: Typologist

Pastry Cook from the series Face of Our Time - August Sander Ca. 1928

Pastry Cook from the series Face of Our Time – August Sander Ca. 1928

In an age when contemporary portrait photography can appear detached, in terms of influence, from the notable photographers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century it is interesting to hear Alec Soth sing the praises of a humble, jobbing, studio photographer from a small town in Germany who is recognised, not just for profoundly impacting German photography, but who defined an approach that still has relevance in the twenty first century. “I like it because there’s nothing sneaky about it, the subject gets to be their own person. The photographer just gets to stare and the viewer just gets to stare and it’s that simple. There’s not a lot of gimmickry to it, and there’s not a lot of artifice, it’s just the simple description of things, which is so mysterious and fabulous.” (1)

Creating a  “simple description” was at the heart of Sander’s work; he said that there was nothing he hated more than “sugary-sweet photography full of pretence, poses, and gimmickry” (i) but his chosen subject matter was monumental in scale and investigated the social extremes of three socio-political eras; the last years of the Second Reich, the rise and fall of The Weimar Republic and the birth of the Third Reich or Nazi Germany. His comprehensive, twenty five year (iii) study of a single national group sits against the backdrop of these seismic political changes.

Sander was born in a small mining community in 1876, the son of a mine carpenter. His introduction to photography came when working as an assistant to a photographer working in the mining industry and he continued in a similar role during his military service in the late 1890s. In 1901 he began working in a photographic studio in Linz becoming first a partner and then the owner by 1904 (3). In 1909 he moved to Cologne and established the studio that would become his operating base until the outbreak of war. Portraiture was the mainstay of his commercial practice and he worked both in his studio and on location for his paying customers whilst making portraits for his own collection from an early stage. Max Kozloff makes the interesting point that although much of his work was for fee paying clients Sander was, in effect, collecting these portraits for himself (7). In the 1920s he began to formulate ideas for his magnum opus, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts or People of the 20th Century in which he intended to document contemporary German society. In 1929 he published, what Badger (5) refers to as a “preliminary report” as Antlitz der Zeit or Face of our Time (8) which contains 60 portraits that reflect his mixed archive of commercial and personal work.

Perhaps all portrait photographers have something of the  anthropologist or ethnographer within in them but Keri Mongelluzo (4) suggests that Sander was also interested in physiognomy, what Gerry Badger (5) calls a “dubious science”, that argues the face is the window on the soul (ii), and that it can be used to read the nature of the inner person, not in terms of the more obviously diagnostic and temporary features such as a smile or scowl but by analysing, shape and proportions. Max Kozloff (7) expands upon this idea saying that Sander believed faces could reveal the subjects’ professions and status but in Face of our Time it is their clothes and sometimes the setting that tells us more of their social standing.

Sander’s theories may have been questionable but as a disciple of the Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity movement his portraits are direct, non judgemental, objective and even handed, he called it “exact photography” (10). Walker Evans, writing in the 1930’s, looked back admiringly on Face of our Time describing it as “A photographic editing of society, a clinical process” (13). Kozloff takes issue with this approach, “annoyed” by the choice of some of his subjects and disappointed that he failed to take the opportunity to criticise the socio-political groups that stand opposed to Kozloff’s political values. He sees Sander as being “serene …. in his treatment of power” and his analysis of the 1916 colonel as a “man of violence” or the 1932 lawyer as “inspiring no faith in the legal system” perhaps tell us more of Kozloff’s politics than Sander’s approach.

SS Captain part of the series People of the 20th Century - August Sander 1937

SS Captain part of the series People of the 20th Century – August Sander 1937

However, whilst it is understandable that Kozloff and other critics are uncomfortable with Sander’s objective portraits of Nazi party officials and Storm Troopers, it is worth reflecting on Alfred Döblin’s 1929 introduction to Face of our Time: “We are free to interpret his photographs in any way we wish, and taken as a whole, they provide superb material for the cultural, class and economic history of the last thirty years.” (iv) Quite clearly Sander brought his own prejudices to the selection of some of his subjects but many of his portraits are of fee-paying clients so there is an element of serendipity in play. We can also assume that Sander was not a Nazi sympathiser (iii) and it would have been a poor inventory of  1930’s Germany to have excluded men in military uniforms that, it must be recognised, had different connotations than they do today. He also photographed the persecuted minorities; Jews, revolutionaries, gypsies, political prisoners, the disabled, asylum inmates and beggars. It is the very breadth, balance and objective nature of his work that makes it so important in both its photographic and historical context. What he called “an absolutely true-to-nature picture of our age” (10). Having said that the portrait of a SS Captain raises intriguing questions about Sander; Face of Our Time had been seized and destroyed the year before this photograph was taken, Sander’s son had been imprisoned three years previously; it is impossible to imagine that Sander was even neutral in his opinions regarding the Nazis yet he is willing to create this portrait of one of their most powerful symbols, the black SS uniform and its wearer. Was he able to compartmentalise his personal feelings so completely in the pursuit of his great project or is there a more complex story behind this photograph?

Mary Warner Marien (11) suggests that his great project may have become highly influential because of its incompleteness; he never finished collecting portraits and the six volumes of People of the 20th Century were curated and published by his sons. This idea is an elegant way of starting a discourse on Sander but in reality it was a project that could never be completed, it is impossible to even define what complete would have meant in the  context of an ever evolving society and most of the 40,000 photographs that make up his archive will already never be published. However, his influence on portrait photography is hard to overstate; Marien mentions Diane Arbus who was inspired by the way he accentuated “inherent human idiosyncrasies” and Andreas Gursky who admires Sander’s technique of “isolating and distancing subjects”. I have previously mentioned Alec Soth and this list can be extended to include Walker Evans, Irving Penn, Robert Frank, Thomas Ruff and Thomas Struth (3)

Young Bourgeois Mother from the series Face of Our Time August Sander 1926

Young Bourgeois Mother from the series Face of Our Time August Sander 1926

There are aspects of Sander’s work that hold true for a significant proportion of historical portraiture. His fee paying clients would often have been seeking to confirm or elevate their social standing and as a professional photographer Sander was complicit in pursuing this agenda. Even though much of his published work was undertaken after the invention of the 35mm camera that could have offered him a more flexible and spontaneous approach he remained loyal to the methods of the previous century. Both these characteristics create a certain rigidity in some of his work but there are notable exceptions in Face of Our Time that suggest that he connected with many of his subjects in a very human and modern way such as with the young bourgeois mother and her baby shown above.

This same photograph can be presented as evidence to rebut the argument that by excluding biographical detail and presenting his subjects in a typology they are no longer individuals, just representative types. Having studied the full set of Faces of Our Time and many other collections on line I don’t subscribe to this argument. I accept that we neither know the name of this mother or her child nor are we given any information other than her class and social status as a mother but we still know something of her; she has a pet dog, has chosen this particular dress for her and suit for the child to sit for the portrait, she gives her child fruit as a way to keep him or her content whilst posing for the strange photographer, her child has a beautiful open smile and is relaxed, content and assured. She can be read as a good mother, caring and loving. These are all individualistic traits, not the conventions of her class, which brings us back to John Tagg’s assertion that “the portrait is a sign whose purpose is both the description of an individual and the inscription of social identity”. (12) In our rush to describe Sander’s work as a catalogue of social types we should not discard the fact that each portrait is of an individual and can be isolated and read as such. This is part of its power as a document.

I will look in more detail at Sander’s approach to composition in a subsequent post.

Notes on Text

(i) “If I, August Sander, a man in good physical and emotional health, purport to see things as they are and not as they should or could be, then I hope I will be forgiven, for I cannot do otherwise. I have been a photographer for 30 years and have dedicated myself to my work with all the devotion that I have to give, the path I have chosen has varied, but it has taught me to recognise my mistakes. The exhibition in the Cologne Art Gallery represents the results of my research, and I hope I am on the right track. Nothing is more abhorrent to me than sugary-sweet photography full of pretence, poses, and gimmickry. For this reason, I have allowed myself to tell the truth about our times and people in a sincere manner” (2)

(ii) The whole idea of the shadow or silhouette as a window on the soul dates back to, at least, ancient Greece and was a subject I looked at in some depth as research for a shadow project in Context and Narrative (here). Physiognomy has drifted in and out of fashion and was closely associated with the silhouette which both as studio and street art was a craze that swept Europe and America in the 18th century and only died out with the invention of photography (6).  As a science it was revived in the nineteenth century by Dr. Hugh Diamond, a photographer and superintendent of a “lunatic asylum”; Diamond took photographs of his patients of mental illness as diagnostic aids and published a treatise on the subject. 

(iii) Sander opened his studio in Cologne in 1909 and the earliest dated photograph in Face of our Time is from 1910. Face of our Time covers the period of 1910 to 1929 but, as pointed out by Max Kozloff (7), it is a mixture of his archive of studio portraits and photographs specifically captured for his People of the 20th Century series. His son was arrested for being a communist activist in 1934, he would die in prison in 1944, and the plates for Face in our Time were seized and destroyed by the Nazis in 1936. In 1933 he began a project to create “thematic albums” (3) of the various regions of Germany and I have found very few of his portraits that are dated later than this time. 

(iv) This succinct statement simultaneously describes one of the principles of post modernism in photography some decades before it was fashionable and proves André Gide’s view that “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening , everything must be said again.” (9)



(5) Badger, Gerry (2007) The Genius of Photography: How Photography has Changed our Lives. London: Quadrille.

(6) Stoichita, Victor I. ( 1997) A Short History of the Shadow. London: Reaktion

(7) Kozloff, Max (2007) The Theatre of the Face. London & NewYork: Phaidon

(8) Sander, August (1929) Face of our Time (1994/2003 edition) München: Schirmer Art Books

(9) Kleon, Austin. (2012) Steal Like an Artist. New York: Workman Publishing Inc.

(11) Marien, Mary Warner (2015) Photography Visionaries. London: Laurence King Pubishing

(12) Clarke, Graham. 1997) The Photograph. Oxford. Oxford University Press.


(1) Combs, Marianne (2008) August Sander: father of Modern Portrait Photography (accessed at MPR News 18.12.15) –

(2) Sander, August (accessed at Atget Photography 18.12.15) –

(3) Sander, August. Biography (accessed at August Sander 17.12.15) –

(4) Mongelluzzo, Keri (2012) Weimar Faces: August Sander’s Man of the Twentieth Century versus the Nazi Ideal (accessed at Academia 17.12.15) –

(10) Koetzle, Hans-Michael (2002) August Sander – A Profile of the People (accessed at ASX 17.12.15) –

(13) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans (1903 – 1975) (accessed at David Campany 29.3.16) –

Burmeister, Don (2013) An Uneven Match: Sherrie Levine and August Sander (accessed at The New York Photo Review 17.12.15) –

Barnas, Ed (2014) Two Typologies: August Sander and Hilla Becher, A Dialog (accessed at The New York Photo Review 17.12.15) –

This entry was posted in 2 - Typologies, Books & Exhibitions, Inspirational Photographers, Research & Reflection and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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