August Sander – A short review

August Sander’s documentary project ‘People of the 20th Century’ was an attempt to sketch society in Germany at that time. He produced portfolios of ‘typical’ people organised by social categories (he also did the same with landscapes).

Sander (1876 – 1964) was born in Herdorf of working-class parents. He initially worked on a waste mining tip and did photography in his spare time. He moved to Linz in Austria, travelled and worked in a photographic studio. He had a very active cultural life – he was now consorting with a range of people from the professional classes and other artists. From as early as 1906, when he held an exhibition, he was already photoing people in their own domestic settings as well as in a studio. He returned to Germany 1920, initially living in Cologne and moving permanently to the countryside during the WWII air raids.

Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne – August Sander

Sander used a large format camera and planned his images very carefully, trying to reflect real life. He collected the images with a goal ‘to provide a true psychology of our time and of our people’ (Sander, 1925). His plan was to produce a massive work, containing somewhere between 500 and 600 pictures called Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century) that was divided into 7 sections. He was looking at taking images of human ‘types’ that were true to nature, he did not want to distort reality but was happy to ensure that an interesting image was made and was undoubtably influenced by the painters of his age including the Surrealists. He was interested in understanding the theory of photography and its use as a way of communication. The concept of ‘types’ and the underpinning use of physiognomy (the pseudo-science that suggested that you could tell much, or all, about a person by the shape of their head and face) has a complicated ethical stance, and has been linked with the eugenics policy of Weimar Germany and the Nationals Socialists.  Interestingly, very few of Sander’s portraits show a typically Aryan type.

Painter [Heinrich Hoerle] 1928,  by August Sander
Painter [Heinrich Hoerle] 1928, by August Sander – one of the Persecuted

His life was impacted on by political situation, friends were imprisoned, some died in concentration camps, his own son, Erich, was imprisoned and died before his release. It is difficult to know what Sander’s position politically was. Before the war he was strongly engaged with the artists, (especially the group known as the Cologne Progressives who were associated with Marxist views), other intellectuals and the ‘left’ culture. His relationship with the Cologne Progressives, his multiple photographs of them and of their work is discussed in detail by Dorothy Rowe (Rowe, 2013). His son had very clear political views and was imprisoned for them. Sander himself took a series of photographs of the Jews and included them within a group called ‘The Persecuted ‘. It is undoubtedly true that what he could publish during the time of the National socialist rule was limited and may well not have reflected his inner thoughts.  Certainly, later he planned to include images of both the persecuted and political prisoners in his portfolio.  His political ideals and morals are discussed at length in an article by Rose-Carol Washton Long (Long, 2013) who argues that although Sander did not openly write about his political beliefs, his friendships, photographs of prisoners and the persecuted and the arrangement of images within his portfolio suggests that he had much more sympathy with the left wing than is commonly thought true. There is an interesting article on this section of his portfolio at:

From August Sander, Stirring Portraits of Nazis and Jews

Sander’s book Face of Our Time was criticised by the German National Socialist government as it did not show the ideals they ascribed to, and the printing blockers were destroyed and as many copies as could be traced also destroyed. This has now been re-issued by Schirmer Art Books with a translation of the foreword by Alfred Döblin (Sander and Döblin, 2003). Döblin remarks that Sander follows the tenants of the Realists, that is, ‘the great universals are effective and real’ and therefore he has, by means of his photographs and the way he has arranged them, formed a sociological history of his time. The types that are photographed now (1920-30’s) are, with the exception of farmers, different from those that could have been photographed 100 years ago and presumably, if the argument for ‘types’ holds true, are different from those that could be photographed now. He ends by saying ‘Entire stories could be told about many of these photographs, they are asking for it, they are raw material for writers, material that is more stimulating and more productive than many a newspaper report’ (Sander and Döblin, 2003).

The Rhine loop near Boppard
The Rhine loop near Boppard – August Sander

Although he is mostly remembered for his portraits, he took pictures of places, landscapes and nature with equal precision. He was interested in showing life as a whole and how it fitted together. He took images of uncluttered nature and of the human encroachment on it. A bridge is as valid as a forest as a quarry.  He didn’t just take the pretty images, the picturesque as many earlier photographers did. ‘Life as it’ is could be taken as his motto. He also was interested in the fine details of things; hands, texture of skin, parts of plants. He documented his time in its entirety, concentrating on local images of people and places to stand for the ‘types’ he felt important.

Hands – August Sander

As well as taking images he painted, drew, wrote about photography and gave lectures (some of these on the radio). His lecture Photography as a Universal Language is available in a translation by Anne Halley (Halley1978) in Seeing, Observing and Thinking (Sander et al, 2009). It is a fascinating insight into his thoughts, starting from the development of language and social reasoning. He says ‘pictorial language….is the most suggestive medium for advertising or coming to an understanding or achieving an end, because the image provides faster orientation than written language…….via photography we are capable of conveying fact, our thoughts and our ideas to all the peoples of the world: add a date to it, and we’re capable of capturing world history’.  He describes it as ‘a global language’, understandable by the masses. There is a clear western, European, intellectual bias here in his thoughts as he makes a number of unfounded assumptions about the universality of understanding of images, and also that the ‘masses’ ware less likely to understand written explanations. However, these biases are understandable in the context of his time and background. He is also clearly aware that photographs can lie, ‘besides its significance as proof of truth, photography also has at it’s disposal the most dangerous potential for deception’.  Sander then talks at length about the innate ability of people to understand what people are like on first impressions, from how they look, from their ‘physiognomy’ (at which he thinks females are better at than males).  He thinks that the face tells you what kind of work a person does (the theory behind his dividing people into ‘types’). He includes an assumption that this also applies to a person’s political beliefs. He feels this only holds true if you do not attempt to confound the images by dressing people up or putting them in clothes from another era. He concludes ‘By means of seeing, observing and thinking, and with the aid of a camera and a date, we can capture world history and influence all of humanity by means of photography as a global language’.

While Sander’s political views are unclear, they were grounded in the complex and changing political situation of the time. His ideas about ‘types’ of people were also associated with the current thoughts in Germany and are of dubious relevance today. He did, however, take a vast number of fascinating images and his thoughts about ‘seeing, observing and thinking’ are as valid today as they were in his lifetime.


Reference list and sources:

Halley, A. (1978). Photography as a Universal Language. Massachusetts Review, Winter 1978, pp.663–679.

Long, R.-C.W. (2013). August Sander’s Portraits of Persecuted Jews – Tate Papers | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at: [Accessed 13 Jul. 2019].

Photography as a Universal language, (1931). Westdeutscher Rundfunk. 12 Apr.

Rowe, D.C. (2013). August Sander and the Artists: Locating the Subjects of New Objectivity – Tate Papers | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at:

Sander, A. (1925). Letter from Sander to Erich Stenger.

Sander, A., Conrath-Scholl, G., Sk Stiftung Kultur. Photographische Sammlung and Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson (2009). August Sander : Seeing, Observing and Thinking : Photographs. Munich: Schirmer/Mosel ; Cologne.

Sander, A. and Döblin, A. (2003). August Sander: Face of our time : Sixty Portraits of Twentieth-Century Germans. München: Schirmer/Mosel.

Sander, A., Sander, E. and Nunez, G.B. (2018). August Sander – Persecuted/Persecutors : people of the 20th century. Gottingen: Steidl.


One thought on “August Sander – A short review”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s