Born in 1876 in a small mining town east of Cologne, Germany, August Sander is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. His epic lifelong project, ‘People of the Twentieth Century,’ documented the ethnic and class diversity of German society, and was an inspiration for numerous photographers including Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Rijeka Dijkstra, to name a few.Sander’s conceptual portraits have been featured in two major publications, Face of Our Time (1929) and Men Without Masks (1973), as well as the magnum opus, final 1,400-page, seven-volume work, People of the Twentieth Century (2002).
Forty rare, large-scale photographs from this body of work are featured in the exhibition, August Sander, at Hauser & Wirth. The images on view represent Sander’s earliest work and were all made between 1910 and 1931. 12 images from his ‘Portfolio of Archetypes’ series are highlighted and feature portrait photographs of farmers, both men and women, from Sander’s native village, Westerwald. The farmers are seated in single, double, or group portraits that reveal subtle but distinguishing characteristics about each person. Despite the homogeneity of black and white images, and the predominately black formal attire and aged faces of the sitters – books or bibles, glasses, pipes, canes and hair coverings make each individual distinct.The unique oversized format of the images, printed by Sander’s son, Gunther, further enhances the visible diversity of the photographed individuals; advancing Sander’s steadfast mission to capture the breadth of the German people. The quality of the film and processes is evident in the prints, revealing stunning renditions of Sander’s use of natural light, his camera’s depth of field, and Gunther’s skills in the darkroom.
Sander went on to use the concept of archetypes throughout the remainder of his career. He characterized and catalogued his subjects in 45 portfolios under 7 general categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesmen, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (the disenfranchised). Sander’s work was influenced by an interest in physiognomy, a popular form of racial or ethnic classification at the time, which has proven quite problematic based on its use as a scientific basis for discrimination. Nevertheless, Sander’s aim to represent his countrymen and countrywomen in their full heterogeneity proved threatening to the Nazi Government and resulted in the destruction of some his work in 1936.
August Sander is on view at Hauser & Wirth through June 17, 2017.