Loop at the Rhine near Boppard, 1936 - Photograph by August Sander
The first post of this year's photographer profile series, looks at the fascinating portraiture work of August Sander, a photographer who dared to continue taking images even though the Nazi authorities constrained his life and work. His crime was of trying to form a photographic archive covering the diversity of the German people during the 1920's and 1930's.
August Sander was born in Herdorf, a town in the district of Altenkirchen, in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. His father was a carpenter working in the mining industry, and it was while Sander was working at the mine that he was introduced to photography when he assisted a photographer who was working for the mining company. With financial help from a member of his family, August Sander was able to buy the equipment necessary to start taking his own photographs. After serving in the military as a photographer's assistant (1897–99), Sander moved around Germany before settling in Austria (1901) where he worked in the Greif Studio. Sander was eventually made a partner in the business with Franz Stukenberg as the Studio Sander and Stukenberg. Within two years, Sander had started his own studio which he sold in 1909, when he moved to Cologne to set up another photographic practice which he accomplished in 1911.
Sander established himself as a successful photographer in Cologne, delivering work to a vast array of clients from the world of industry and trade. He was, in every regard, a commercial photographer undertaking advertising commissions, and not just a portrait photographer even though that is what he is best known for. Landscapes and architecture photography were also a big part of Sander's creative output - many of which are just as great as his portraits. The first elements of the idea that would become his documentation of German society 'People of the 20th Century' came about while photographing farmers near to World War I. These images started Sander developing the bigger idea of documenting people as part of a much larger project. It was around this time that he became involved with a group of left wing artists called the Cologne Progressives led by Heinrich Hoerle and Franz Wilhelm Seiwert.
By 1924, August Sander had created his People of the twentieth century photographic project, in which a broad section of German society had been photographed. He divided the huge portfolio of work into several sections ranging from farmers to artists. Sander would continue to work on this project, off and on, for a number of years, but it's progress was interrupted by the rise of Nazism within Germany. August Sander published a book featuring sixty of his portraits in 1929 called Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time). The book successfully managed to portray the diversity and individuality of German society, however the Nazis had a far more simplistic and romanticized view of the German people, mixed together with an blond, blue eyed Aryan ideology that was far from the reality portrayed in Sander's images. The Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, and Sander's book (Face of Our Time) was banned in 1934 - the printing plates for the book were also smashed by the Nazis authorities. Many feared that August Sander would be banned from working as a photographer, but this didn't happen, partly due maybe to the photographer's decision to start choosing photographic subjects away from portraiture. Architecture, nature and landscape photography work (landscapes mainly around the Rhine river) were where he focused his attention.
Sander still continued, however, to quietly produce portraits (more likely commissioned customer portraits via his photographic business) during the late 1930's with sitters even including a member of Adolf Hitler's personal bodyguard. The war resulted in the near destruction of Cologne and the loss of the photographer's studio along with part of his archive. Many were saved however due to Sander moving to a rural location in 1942, away from the bombing. After the war, roughly 25,000 to 30,000 negatives still stored in the cellar of the Cologne apartment were destroyed by a fire in January 1946. The postwar years saw August Sander resume his portraiture and record the forlorn bombed ruins of Cologne. These images were used to create the haunting book 'Köln wie es war'.The photographer had spent many pre-war years recording the city's beautiful old streets and elegant buildings, much of which had been destroyed in the Allied bombing campaign.
By 1945, August Sander's portrait archive came to a staggering 40,000 images with the series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc). He continued to work in the post war years mainly on landscape and architecture photography, but never really returned to his portraiture work with the vigour of the pre war years. The final years of Sander's life saw the photographer study the nature and development of photography from virtually every angle, looking at technology, choice or composition of subject as well as use and context.
August Sander died in 1964 with his People of the twentieth century project unfinished. In the course of his seventy year career, Sander managed to produce a body of work of such broad artistic, social and cultural importance. The task of taking all those images was huge, and in many respects, it was a photographic project that would have been impossible to complete. The fact that so much wok was done is a mark of how great a photographer August Sander was. The great collection of images from the People of the twentieth century photo archive was brought together by Sander's son, Gunther in the early 1950's. Since then, August Sander archive has been exhibited widely and the portraits continue to fascinate new generations of viewers to this day.
All Images by August Sander
Top left - August Sander, 1925 Top right - Gamekeeper, 1911-1914
Middle left - Circus Workers, 1926-1932
Bottom right - Member of Hitler's SS Guard (Cologne 1938) Bottom - Political Prisoner, 1941-1944