August Sander – Portraits

Sander’s portraits of people were mainly done as part of his study of ‘types’ – although he also produced numerous images of friends and colleagues (many of which were then included in his portfolio of type)s.

Looking at them overall (at least the ones I have access to) the majority are either full length or ¾ length. Few are just heads. Most of them are standing, but several, especially the older people, are seated. Out of the 60 images in Face of Our Time:

  • 37 are single people
  • 13 are couples (including 2 of a mother and child)
  • 10 are groups (including several families)

The backgrounds are variable, while many are shown in their environments, others are shown against a simple wall or curtain, with few clues as to where the image was taken. They are simply titled, often with just a designation such as Odd-Job Man  or The Young Business Man. Few are identified by name, and those tend to be the images of people that I assume he knew well, such as Bohemians (Willi Bonnard and Gottfried Brockmann), 1922-1925 although in my copy of Face of Our Time this is simply listed as Bohemia.

 Analysing some of the images individually it is clear that he varied his practice depending on what effect he wanted to produce.

  1. Odd-job Man, also called The Bricklayer. This is a very simple layout. It is a ¾ length portrait, against a black background. The man is looking directly at you, eye to eye. He carries a pallet of bricks balanced on his shoulders and is dressed in (clean) workman’s clothes with a cap partly shading his face. His expression is unsmiling, almost severe. He is identified by the tools of his trade and his clothes. The focal point is on his face and although the bricks remain sharp the rest of his body fades into the background.

    August Sander – Odd-job Man
  2. Painter (Anton Räderscheidt). This is a full-length image of a man standing, with his arms at his sides, facing you directly. Here he is carefully placed within his background, a street in Cologne, taken in the early morning. The painter is in the lower right 1/3 of the image, with his bow tie just about on the midline. The street is much lighter in colour and fades into the background. The figure almost forms a silhouette, but there is enough detail left in for it to be recognisable. His face remains the sharpest point of the image, although there is not a huge change across the foreground (there might be more in a larger copy). It is said to be in the style of Räderscheidt’s own paintings.

    August Sander – Painter
  3. The Pianist (Max van de Standt). This is a full-length image. Here the pianist is in a commanding central position. He faces you directly, but the angle of the image makes it appear as though he is looking down on you. He is not smiling and looks very stern. He wears a formal black suit, a bowler hat and a white bow tie. He carries a book (possibly a manuscript) – to suggest the idea of a musician and a walking stick. He is standing inside a grand room, with large windows and what appear to be panelled walls. His head and his right hand (holding the walking stick) are sharply in focus, the rest of his body slightly less so. The background is completely out of focus but retains enough detail to make you think of a concert hall, or a room within a mansion.

    August Sander – Painter
  4. Bohemians (Willi Bonnard and Gottfried Brockman). This image is of two men, probably in their late 20’s. They were artists associated with the Cologne Dada movement and known for their unconventional lifestyle. They are seated, showing just their bodies and heads, facing each other, against a pale wall. The left-hand male has his hands resting on the others calves and is looking directly at him. His face, sideways on to the viewer, is very sharp and is the focal point of the image. The right-hand man is looking sideways, showing a ¾ face to the viewer, with a somewhat quizzical look. He is slightly less in focus. This image is easy (and tempting) to make up a story about. They are lovers. The left man is totally focused on and besotted with the other. The right man is more bohemian, less intensely involved, more aware of his surroundings. Thinking about other people. Of course, this is all a supposition, but the image encourages that. The only props are the cigarettes dangled in both men’s hands – but smoking was common in that era.

    August Sander – Bohemians
  5. Secretary, 1945. This image shows a young woman seated at a desk in front of a window, which overlooks a park. She is positioned on the left third of the image, with her neck on the midline. She is glancing up at the viewer, in a ¾ pose, with her hands still resting on the book she was reading. The room looks surprisingly sumptuous for a secretary’s office, possibly her home, or she works in the study at her employer’s house. The focus is on her face, but also on her hands. The background fades away. She looks serious, and studious. This image was taken either just at the end of the war, or just after it. It was a serious time in Germany, and this reflects that.

    August Sander – Secretary
  6. Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne, 1931. This earlier image is a complete contrast to the one above. It shows a person, that I initially thought from the hands and Adam’s apple was male, in what appears to be a floral dress. However, it is a woman, and was included as such in his portfolio. The National Gallery of Scotland website describes it as ‘Her dark silk dress decorated with floral embroidery, the secretary perches awkwardly with hunched shoulders on a wooden chair, smoking a cigarette. Her upheld right hand is drawn almost to her lips, which are slightly parted as if in exhalation. With her short hair, lipstick and carefully shaped eyebrows, this ‘Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne’ is a very fashionable woman, who may be seen as representing the ‘new’ woman of the day, much like Otto Dix’s painting ‘Portrait of the Journalist Sylvia von Harden’ (1926). The flat plane of the matt white wall behind her frames the gleaming satin folds of her garment, while Sander’s crop accentuates his subject’s tall thin frame, despite her slouched posture, in a portrait that emanates glamour and poise.’ All of the above I agree with; she is certainly very glamourous. She is shown in a commanding position. The only prop is a cigarette. The focus is on her eyes. There is an alternate image of her in a slightly different pose that looks much softer and more feminine.
  7. Pastrycook. This image is clearly of a workman with his tools. He stands, face forward, dressing in his chef’s clothing, stirring a bowl. He is in his kitchen. There is a plate of small cakes on the counter behind him. The focus is on him and the background is out of focus. He is in control of his workplace and wants you to see this. He is a large man, in keeping with his trade, and a proud one. The background makes it obvious what his job is – and encouragers the idea of a type.

    Pastrycook 1928, printed 1999 by August Sander 1876-1964
    August Sander – Pastrycook
  8. Vagrants, 1929. This shows two men in the countryside. They are somewhat scruffily dressed and unshaven. The images are full length and take up most of the picture. They both look directly at you. They both carry walking sticks and one a backpack. The countryside behind them is out of focus, so they stand clearly against it. Both heads are above the skyline and stand out clearly against a cloudless sky. He has caught them with tired, almost exhausted expressions.

    August Sander – Vagrants

Interestingly, although all these images are recognisable as Sander’s work, he has not used a formulaic process in taking them. Some show backgrounds, some do not. On the whole the images of the more upper class and professional people are less likely to have very explicit backgrounds, but that does not always hold true – The Tycoon shows him seated, sidewards in his luxurious room, with the focus as much on the elaborate embroidered chair as on the man, while Cleaning Woman  is shown against a wall, with only what appears to be a broom handle to mark her trade. Most of the faces (even of the children) are unsmiling, often stern – but that was the expected face for a portrait in that era. The exceptions here are his images of circus workers who are often smiling or looking at each other rather than at the camera. The thing that is consistent throughout is that the focus is always on the person and usually on the face. He used depth of field very effectively to lift the subject from the background so while the surrounds can give additional information, they are not the main event. That is always the person.

For an interesting extended discussion  on Sander’s Types and the images produced see:

August Sander: “A Profile of the People” (2002)

References and Sources:

National Galleries of Scotland. (2019). Secretary at West German Radio, Cologne, 1931. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Jul. 2019].

Sander, A. (2011). Face of our Time: sixty portraits of twentieth-century Germans. London: Schirmer Art Books.

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.

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