The photographer who captured the faces of time

text: Taka Kawachi

Winter/2015-2016

August Sander was a German photographer who, as a portrait photographer, became known for his exquisite portraits. The incredible idea that manifested from within, and which won Sander many prizes at international exhibitions thereby achieving considerable success at a young age, was his grand project to document the people of every social class in Germany.

He started this project first with the farmers living near the German city of Cologne in the 1910’s. What Sander kept in mind at all times with this concept was to capture the people who were to become his subject as natural as possible. Moreover, for this project, it seemed Sander did not receive any money from his subjects. Perhaps he was of the belief that if this was treated like a job, people would force smiles or dress up for the occasion, making him unable to bring out and capture their true emotions within.

As Sander was shooting based on perfectly natural situations, he made them stand in front of his large format camera in their everyday clothes or uniform, and continuously took images which brought to light their standing or occupation. Farmers and their wives, bricklayers, cooks, artists, musicians, the clergy, the military, the unemployed and so on. As if an anthropologist, classifying samples according to occupation and social standing, he continued this tireless endeavor to paint a picture of the whole of German society.

To highlight German society, Sander photographed images according to 7 broad categories: 'The Farmer', 'The Tradesman', 'The Women', 'Classes and Professions', 'The Artists', 'The City' and 'The Last People'. August Sander, Young Farmer (1914, left) Pastry Cook, (1928, right) ©Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne;JASPAR Tokyo, 2015

Even in the face of much adversity, he resolutely committed himself to this project on-and-off until the 1950’s. As a result, he was able to take more than 40,000 images in total. Sander had the aim to categorize these portraits and publish them in a photo collection like an encyclopedia. But this would not see the light of day in his lifetime.

It was the time when Nazi Germany had strengthened its authority. Sander was in conflict with their ideal of the purity of the Aryan race, so his photographing of other races and the homeless was seen as going against the regime. Furthermore, as his eldest son Erich was arrested and imprisoned due to his left-wing political activities, Sander was forced to curtail his shooting due to continued and persistent surveillance toward him.

Finally, like a kick to the stomach, the photographic plates to his only published work in his lifetime, ‘The Face of our Time’, were destroyed and the remaining stock was seized. And to add insult to injury, his photo studio was destroyed in a bombing raid.

Being on the receiving end of a life of misfortune, Sander passed away in 1964. But luck would have it, as he moved to a small village for a period of time to escape from the war, a lot of his negatives somehow survived. His other son Günter, who was much like his father, was finally able to publish one edition of his photography in 1980. The title of that book ‘People of the 20th Century’ was what Sander had named his project. It was filled with vital portraits that captured the ordinary citizens of Germany in a straightforward manner.

Taka Kawachi

Studied at San Francisco Art College after high school, moved to New York and curated exhibitions and edited photography collections. He returned to Japan in 2011. He has recently published two books with writings about art and photography in Europe and America (not yet available in English).

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