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August Sander

German Photographer

August Sander Photo

Born: November 17, 1876 - Herdorf, Germany

Died: April 20, 1964 - Cologne, Germany

"I hate nothing more than sugary photographs with tricks, poses and effects. So allow me to be honest and tell the truth about our age and its people".

Summary of August Sander

August Sander is acclaimed for a life-long undertaking known as People of the Twentieth Century. Though it was realized as one single volume only posthumously (through the efforts of his son) his career-defining mission gave rise to the greatest portrait collection of the 20th century. Sander's goal was to produce a comprehensive photo-sociological document of the cross-section - from land workers to factory workers; to artistic and professional elites; to the frail and the elderly - of German society as it unravelled during his own lifetime. Despite the emergence of the new, faster and more mobile, 35MM Leica camera, Sander remained steadfast in his commitment to the heavy large-format camera that used glass negatives and demanded long exposure times. For him the greater detail offered by the latter format far outweighed the benefits of the former. Sander represented all his sitters, whom he identified, not by name, but by occupation or type, with a respectful and unadorned neutrality, and always within their familiar surroundings.

Key Ideas

Ranked as one of the greatest socio-historical documentarians, Sander's oeuvre is typically defined by its homogeneity and the sheer scale of its ambition. Rejecting all forms of expressionism and romanticism, Sander's portraiture is associated with the rise of the New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) movement that gained momentum in German artistic circles during the inter-war years. However, that observation, though quite correct, rather belies the fresh artistic and humanist quality Sander brought to photographic portraiture that had been defined hitherto in its relationship to painting, and by the way it 'described' its subject with the help of flattering backdrops and secondary objects (or 'props').
Sander opposed the traditional (some would say 'bourgeois') style of studio portraiture that tried to imitate painting. He favored the glossy paper format used in technical photographs because it offered him the greatest image detail, and even though that preference necessitated the use of cumbersome large plate cameras, Sander remained committed to taking portrait photography out of the studio into the real world. Shooting always from a single perspective - face-to-face as it were - he considered the relationship between location and sitter to be the most essential ingredient for communicating both the status and essence of his or her personality.
Sander saw himself very much as a patriot: an agent of, and for, the German people. Very nearly his whole career was devoted to documenting 20th century Germany through photographic portraits of the individuals who would make up an egalitarian montage of the whole of German society. Sander was not however interested in capturing the mystique of his subjects (as was the goal of someone like Edward Steichen, for example). Nor could his approach to his subjects be described as intuitive. Rather, Sander's planned compositions worked always towards the aim of creating an artefact possessed of lasting national posterity. He was able to achieve his goal by using his camera to honor the propriety of the unique individuals that comprised his beloved nation.
August Sander Photo

One of several siblings, August Sander was born on the 17th November 1876, in the German village of Herdorf, to Justine and August Sander. Before the family set up their own modest farm, August Sr. earned his living as a carpenter working in the mining industry. August Jr. seemed destined to follow in his father's footsteps when, as expected, he took up an apprenticeship at the San Fernando Iron Ore mine in 1889. However, while working at the mine, he was tasked with assisting a technical photographer. The experience proved to be a turning point for the young Sander who became captivated by this new medium for making pictures. Two years later, and with a financial gift from a kindly uncle, an enthused Sander purchased a camera (his first) and some basic dark room equipment.

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