August Sander

Posted on January 29, 2013


Of all the photographers I have reviewed August Sander is perhaps the one who is most often quoted as an influence by other portrait photographers. Sander was a German photographer working in the early part of the 20th century. In 1929, he published  Face of Our Time (Sander ) which contained around 60 portraits. The book was an extract from his larger work Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (Citizens of the Twentieth Century), a collective portrait of Weimar society consisting of over 500 images (this work was never published in its entirety).  This was divided into forty-five portfolios organised into seven sections. Each section depicted a specific population group, including farmers, workers, professionals, and city dwellers.

august sander face of our time

Sander is famously quoted as saying that ‘the individual does not make the history of his time, he both impresses himself upon it and expresses its meaning’.(Percival 2005 , pp199) In Sander’s mind, the individuals, immortalised within his photographic portraits, can become symbols of their time. This idea was central to Sander’s work and his beliefs about the way that photographs convey meaning.

In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes discusses the way in which photographs can create meaning outside of their literal interpretation. He uses the analogy of a ‘mask’. In his words: ‘Since every photograph is contingent (and thereby outside of meaning), Photography cannot signify (aim at a generality) except by assuming a mask. It is this word which Calvino correctly uses to designate what makes a face into the product of a society and of its history’ (Barthes 1993, pp34) What Barthes is saying here is that for someone pictured in a photograph to come to stand for something beyond just themselves, their face must assume the qualities of mask, which can be ‘worn’ by others and which can convey  more generalised ideas and concepts.

Sander’s “physiognomic types” can be thought of as a series of masks depicting the structure of German society as he perceived it. In reality however, Sander’s archive was not an accurate reflection of the social structure at that time. For example, the general labour force was hardly included and farmers, a group which Sander respected, were clearly over-represented. Over the years much critical comment has been directed at Sander’s pseudo-scientific claims. A central issue here is that no photographic archive is without bias however forcefully it is represented as factual and scientific. As Allan Sekula says ‘we…need to grasp how photography constructs an imaginary world and passes it off as reality.’ (Wells 2003, pp)

Sander’s believed in physiognomy which was an accepted pseudo-science in his day. In a 1931 radio lecture he is quoted as saying ‘Physiognomy is above all insight into human nature…’  ( Sander 2009, pp 28)The belief that a person’s facial features or expression or appearance are indicative of character or ethnic origin or station in life is of course nowadays seriously discredited. No doubt the activities of the Nazis had much to do with revealing just how flawed this type of thinking is.

Sander’s classification could also be read as perpetuating the prevailing ideologies of class structure and gender relations. Post modern thinking works from the assumption that no image is innocent. So however well intentioned Sander was, and I truly think he was, his work has a political component, even if it is simply perpetuating the prevailing ideologies of his time. Susan Sontag takes the view that ‘Sander’s social sample is unusually, conscientiously broad…. [but]… his eclectic style gives him away…Unselfconsciously, Sander adjusted his style to the social rank of the person he was photographing. Professionals and the rich tend to be photographed indoors, without props. They speak for themselves. Labourers and derelicts are usually photographed in a setting which speaks for them – as if they could not be assumed to have the kinds of separate identities normally achieved in the upper and middle classes’ (Sontag 1979 pp 60). It is interesting that in today’s commodity driven culture people’s appearances seem to be classified more by the designer labels they buy into. The rich and aristocratic can look scruffy in their Versace grungy clothing and the working class very smart in their Marks and Spencer’s Italian suits…

So given all the concerns I’ve expressed above why then is Sander considered by many photographers to be the ‘father’ of the modern portrait. He has influenced the likes of Diane Arbus, Irving Penn, and Walker Evans. At the centre of this is the ‘apparent’  truthfulness and directness of his portraits. He does not attempt to induce emotion. Rarely are his subjects laughing or smiling or making overt facial expressions. They are pictured in the same manner, broadly square on to the camera with most looking directly at the viewer. The backgrounds are either neutral ‘out of focus’ scenes or plain studio backdrops. All of this gives his portraits an air of authenticity and ‘believability’. He also treats all of his subjects with same sensitivity and dignity.

Sander’s other key influence has been his use of the photographic archive and the creation of a typology. Charlotte Cotton sees the greatest influence of Sander and other members of the German New Objectivity (Neue Sachlichkeit) photographers was because ‘their approach was encyclopedic: they created typologies of nature, industry, architecture and human society through the sustained photographing of single subjects, their most resounding influence on contemporary art photography.’ (Cotton 2004, pp 82) This influence was amplified by the photography and teaching of the Bernd and Hilla Becher, which gave birth to the Dusseldorf School of photography with the likes of Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff, Candida Hofer and others.

As regards Sander’s influence on my own work,four things stand out when I look at his work. The first is simply the prodigious scale of Sander’s project. He made over 500 portraits over some twenty years. Sander had an idea and steadfastly stuck with it. I have learned that producing one’s best work does not come easily and perseverance is essential for success. Second is his systematic approach. Here again the importance of the process is illustrated. I also admire the way Sander made dignified and sensitive portraits of all his subjects regardless of his perception of their status. This is something which I hope to do with my own portraiture. by maintaining an empathetic, dignified and sensitive approach. Finally, I would like my portraits to appear natural, unmediated and believable and in this regard Sander’s approach is an excellent role model.


Barthes R. (1993) Camera Lucida London: Random House

Cotton C. (2004) THE PHOTOGRAPH AS CONTEMPORARY ART  London: Thames & Hudson

Percival M. & Tytler G. (2005) Physiognomy In Profile: Lavater’s Impact On European Culture Newark: University of Delaware Press

Sander A.(1995) August Sander:Face of Our Time Munich:Schirmer/Mosel

Sander A. (2009) August Sander Seeing, Observing and Thinking Munich: Schirmer/Mosel

Sontag S. (1979) On Photography London: Penguin Books

Wells L. (2003) the photography reader Abingdon: Routledge