Category Archives: Project 2 – Typologies

Exercise 1.3 Portraiture typology

Typologies are tricky things. The definition is straightforward. According to Collins English dictionary it is: ‘A typology is a system for dividing things into different types, especially in science and the social sciences.’ A much longer definition/explanation is in an essay by Paul Davis in which he argues that ‘the primary reasons to create a photographic typology would be to either create a connection between subjects that share no obvious visual relationship. Or to compare and highlight differences and/or similarities between subjects that do share a visual relationship. Context frames the work. If creating a visual relationship was the intention, the context will then provide further confirmation. These three factors can be used to assess possible intention and enhance interpretation’.

For this exercise we are asked to ‘create a photographic portraiture typology … to bring together a collection of types …. Don’t make the series too literal and obvious’. It was the last criteria that gave me difficulty. All the collections I could think of were literal.

 I experimented with taking pictures of people who were in a very close ‘club’ – that of train drivers – but specifically of those old trains that have been restored and now are run as a hobby. These people are fascinating, and variable, not all men, not all old! I went to two trains to explore this and it is something I want to explore further- but it is going to take considerable time to do, as they are not close to gather in space, are often only open at the weekends (and not all weekends) and need good weather! This is a long-term project – and one I will continue with.

I then decided to use an opportunity to take images of a group of people I work with. It was l leaving do, a lunch affair. This had its own difficulties. We were inside, so the light was not good, and varied between the two rooms we were in. There were a lot of background distractions, other people, odd pieces of furniture, windows and doors. The group wanted me to take their photos – but did not want to stay still or pose formally. I likened it to trying to herd cats. The group is all female, although not all the people I work closely with are. This is the group that chose to come to the event.

To produce a typology from this somewhat unpromising start I picked out the individual images and cropped them to a square head and shoulders views. I choose to process them as monochrome images, with a slight sepia tint, partly to bring them together as a set, and partly to play on the theme of a retirement, the end of an era. This typology could be titled with a variety of names:

  • Women who lunch
  • Doctors – specifically paediatricians
  • Friends
  • Retirees

This is a typology similar to Sander’s in that it is a close group of people, categorised by their profession, and therefore, inevitably by their social status. However, I suspect he would have been surprised to find the group of doctors consisting solely of women. I have chosen to think of them by their activity rather than their work, as several are retired. A marked difference from Sander’s images is that all are smiling – a change in convention for portraits from his times, and also due to the relaxed situation the images were taken in. The background suggests the informal nature of the event – but does not give clues to their occupation.

Final Typology – Women who Lunch

Learning points:

  • It is difficult to take images for one purpose (a typology) at an event
  • I need to improve my organisational and command skills – they wouldn’t hold still or look at me
  • Moving the whole group outside and doing it as a more formal exercise might have been both simpler and given better (more coherent) images

Positive points:

  • My portraiture skills are slowly improving
  • Everybody was pleased with their photos

Contact Sheets:

Reference list (2019). Typology definition and meaning | Collins English Dictionary. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 Aug. 2019].

Davis, P. (2017). Can the photographic typology be defined? [online] Medium. Available at:

Huebler- Variable Piece #101

Douglas Huebler – Variable Piece #101 ©unknown

Douglas Huebler (1924-1997) was a pioneer of Conceptual Art. He started as a painter, moved towards sculpture and then to making his series that he called ‘Duration Pieces’, ‘Variable pieces’ and ‘Location Pieces’ in which he documentaries places, people or everyday activities using photographs, maps and drawings. One example of this is Variable Piece # 101. In this piece he took 10 pictures of Bernd Becher who was asked to pose, in the following order, as: “a priest, a criminal, a lover, an old man, a policeman, an artist, Bernd Becher, a philosopher, a spy, and a nice guy.”  Some months later, when Becher had presumably forgotten exactly what he did, he sent the images back to Becher and asked him to identify each face. Huebler then exhibited these pieces together with the list of what he had asked Becher to act out and the list of Becher titles. He was very clear “Ten photographs and this statement join together to constitute the final form of this piece.” The whole work of art was constructed from both the images and the list – but he only identified the images by number and did not say whether the list of titles belonged to his original order, Becher’s order, or indeed a completely different order. It was further confused by the fact that the work was exhibited twice, once in the Los Angeles Museum  of Contemporary Art and once in Limoges and catalogues lists exist showing both of these, but the images are shown in different orders in the two places and only numbered in the Limoges catalogue. Two of the images are actually different between the two catalogues.

Pitheads 1974 by Bernd Becher and Hilla Becher 1931-2007, 1934-2015
Hilda and Bernd Becher

Bernd Becher himself was a notable typologist, usually working with his sister Hilla Becher. They photographed industrial structures such as water towers, and factories, always in black and white. They showed the images in sets (typologies), usually layed out in a grid pattern. A quote from them on the Tate website says ‘We photographed water towers and furnaces because they are honest. They are functional, and they reflect what they do – that is what we liked. A person is always what s/he wants to be, never what s/he is. Even an animal usually plays a role in front of the camera’ (Tate, 2016).

Huebler’s work in Variable Piece 101 plays on the typology work of the Bechers, both by using Becher himself as a participant and also by laying the black and white images out in a grid. However, unlike their work where there is no ambiguity, the piece by Huebler is full of it. Which image is which? Which image did Becher identify as what? And why did he change the pictures between the two exhibitions – and which set did he show to Becher to be sorted? The title causes confusion rather than clarity. In an illuminating essay by Hughes, he points out that Becher turns the whole exercise back on the Bechers, confusion not clarity, a person rather than buildings (Hughes, 2007).

Catholic Priest 1927, printed 1990 August Sander 1876-1964 ARTIST ROOMS Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. Lent by Anthony d’Offay 2010

Huebler also comments photographically on the earlier work of August Sander and his typologies. The ‘types’ that Becher is asked to perform are some of the types that Sander divided his portfolio into; philosopher, policeman, priest, old man, criminal, and artist. However, Sander showed his images as individuals, rather than in a grid pattern. Huebler is subverting Sander’s work in that it is impossible to tell which face is supposed to be which character, and, of course, they are all images of one person. It is possible, and an interesting exercise, to cut out the faces from some of the less well-known photographs by Sander, present them to another person in a random order, and see what ‘type’ they would be identified as. Even if you gave a list of possible types I suspect that everyone would order then differently.

This piece of work emphasises how crucial it is to know the intention of the artist. The meaning of the images here are elusive. The titles are potentially misleading not clarifying. The piece needs to be seen as a whole.   What is Huebler telling us? The clearest reading is not to believe the obvious. To be aware of potential for confusion. Nothing is fixed, all is variable. The meaning is what you see which may be different from what the person next to you sees.


Hughes, G. (2007). Game Face: Douglas Huebler and the Voiding of Photographic Portraiture. Art Journal, 66(4), pp.52–69.

Tate (2016). Who are Hilla and Bernd Becher? | Tate. [online] Tate. Available at:



Robert Mapplethorpe – A Brief History

Mapplethorpe was interested in identity and amongst his huge oeuvre he took multiple portraits, and many self portraits. He was gay, however he initially tried to bury this aspect of himself and conform, but eventually ended up making images that are highly charged, homoerotic in nature, that still have the power to shock, and, over the years, have often been banned from display.

Mapplethorpe grew up in the rebellious years, when the civil rights movement in America was active, gay liberation was starting, the birth-pill became available, and gay pornographic films became mainstream (Deep Throat). He was born into a middle-class family and was said to be a socially awkward teenager. Initially at college he was part of a right wing, strongly heterosexual group, but gradually became more interested in the counterculture movement, started using drugs and became interested in the Cubists and Surrealists. He also met Patti Smith who became a huge influence and support in his life. He initially made mixed media and collage artworks, often based on religious iconography (although with erotic overtones).  He had been brought up Catholic, with all the colour, pomp and rituals of that faith.

Tie Rack – 1969 © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

He started photography using a Polaroid camera, initially possibly to make images that he could use in his collages, but then to make images of anything he was interested in, including his lover, flowers, china and odd bits of outdoor scenery.  He took many of Patti Smith, but also others of himself in a range of situations. There is one very early series of Patti Don’t Touch Here showing her leaning against the wall, looking subdued and thoughtful, possibly taken by a very possessive friend/partner/lover. Many off the Polaroid images were snapshots, taken in the moment and for the moment. Speed of production was the thing.

dont touch
Robert Mapplethorpe – Don’t Touch Here © Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

Mapplethorpe took self-portraits throughout his career. They were often partially veiled or broken into fragments, he would hand colour parts of the images, and take his body from unusual angles. While he was a certainly free with the types of images he took, with much play acting there was only a limited amount of true self disclosure. In an interview in 1987 he said ‘I would never take a self-portrait when I was depressed…. I don’t want to see that part of me’ (Wolf, 2019). Does all the highly explicit imagery do as much to conceal as to show?

As well as continuing to take homoerotic images mainly of the gay, male s/m community, (which he was an active and enthusiastic part of) Mapplethorpe also circulated in the art and culture high society, taking a series of portraits of the rich and famous, film stars and artists. He excelled in showing their hidden personality. Mapplethorpe was interested in art history and collected photographs by a range of people, including Julia Margaret Cameron and Minor White. He often used these interests to inform his photography, posing people to replicate statues or earlier art works, such as James Ford in his bathtub – like the Death of Marat painting by Jaqueline-Louis David. He also continued to photograph still life images, often showing them in elaborate frames. He moved to using a Hasselblad with its square format and increased clarity, while taking more images of the famous, posed against neutral backgrounds. He had moved from the immediacy of the Polaroid images to producing perfection in gelatin silver prints.

© Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation

His work became famous and was regularly shown all over the world. He also produced books and limited run portfolios. Many of his exhibitions were contentious, and some were cancelled as being ‘pornographic’ (which they undoubtedly were) – although this raises the ongoing question about whether pornography and art are mutually exclusive. Can they be? And indeed, should they be? Where is the boundary and what side are many of Mapplethorpe’s images on?

Mapplethorpe kept careful control of his work, and, although he did not produce prints himself, was heavily involved in what they looked like, and how many of each edition should be offered. Many of his images were never printed for sale. He was fascinated by symmetry, form and geometry – which the square format of the Hasselblad lent itself to. However, he did not just take nudes, he also took a wide range of portraits and still life images. He always looked for perfection. Something different – he said in 1978 “I want the person to look at least as interesting as they can look… I try to catch something unique in him that no one else has” (Mapplethorpe, 1978, quoted in Robert Mapplethorpe, The Photographs, p57).

Mapplethorpe contracted AIDS and died in 1989, setting up The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation just before he died. Prior to his death he continued to work intensively but concentrated more on still life images of flowers and sculptures. His images remain a fascinating legacy of a complex man.

References and Sources:

Hartley, K. and National Galleries Of Scotland (2006). Robert Mapplethorpe -National Galleries of Scotland to accompany the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe held in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, from 29 July to 5 November 2006. Edinburgh Scottish National Gallery Of Modern Art.

Mapplethorpe, R., Martineau, P., Salvesen, B., Gefter, P., Katz, J.D., Linkof, R., Meyer, R., Squiers, C., Getty, P., County, A. and Musée Des Beaux-Arts De Montréal (2016). Robert Mapplethorpe: The Photographs. Los Angeles, Calif.: J. Paul Getty Museum.

National Galleries of Scotland. (2019). ARTIST ROOMS Self Evidence | Photographs by Woodman, Arbus and Mapplethorpe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 26 Jul. 2019].

Wolf, S. (2019). Mapplethorpe – Polaroids. Prestel.


Exercise 1.2 – Background as Context

The brief was to make a portrait of someone you know, paying attention to the background and using it to tell something about the subject.

I chose to do an image of Alby. Alby is the owner of our local comic bookshop. He is also a photographer and is studying for a degree in photography at about the same stage I am at – so we have a lot of discussion about this. Alby is supported by his dog, Atticus, who is convinced the shop is there just for his personal gain, so he can get made a fuss of regularly. Atticus tried very hard to be the main subject of the mage and I have several pictures showing him in beautiful focus as he pushed Alby out of the way. We had some discussion about where to take the picture. The corner of the shop that Alby works in does not have the best lighting and is very cramped – but I decided that in spite of these drawbacks that area told the most about him and moving the shop around to get better light was not really practical.  Ideally, I should have used flash – but I do not have a suitable set up, and we were also working when the shop was open, and around customers, so that did limit the flexibility of what I could do. This was, however, a useful learning experience about how to take images in limited circumstances. Alby started off trying to be very serious – which is not his usual self at all – and when teased by his family about it then tried to ‘make a smile’ which was also not very like his normal expression. Eventually I just decided to take a lot of images while talking to him, so that he relaxed enough to be natural.  The whole shoot took about 45 minutes.

These were the best images


I then spent time considering a relative close up – as actually my favourite image of Alby is :Albie (3 of 9)

but it does not show much background or say much about him. So, I thought that in the context of the brief this was a better image:

Albie (1 of 1)-2.jpg

although I was very tempted by this (where Atticus is showing that he is definitely in charge):

Albie (1 of 1).jpg

Both of these images say a lot about Alby, he works in a shop, he is a colourful personality (I briefly considered a monochrome image, but the effect of the fabulous tattoos was lost). He owns (or is owned by) a large dog, and he has a sense of humour.

Learning points:

  • Allow yourself plenty of time
  • Spend time talking to the subject until they relax (even if you know them)
  • Think about a variety of distances (close-up v 3/4 v whole body)
  • Consider getting a flash set-up when I can afford it
  • Animals always take over!

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.

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.