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Sander’s Human Comedy

August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century A Photographic Portrait of Germany

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, May 25–September 19, 2004

People of the Twentieth Century

by August Sander, edited by Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, revised and newly compiled by Susanne Lange, Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, and Gerd Sander
Abrams, seven volumes, $195.00


The Germans came surprisingly late to photography. Possibly because of the dominance of the field by the French and the British—not to mention the Americans—Germany did not produce a single especially memorable photographic artist or image until near the end of the nineteenth century, when Wilhelm Plüschow and Wilhelm von Gloeden separately ventured to the Mediterranean to pose naked young men, sometimes with Pan horns, in light-classical motifs. Around that same time, two large projects, har-bingers of the next century, were quietly beginning to germinate entirely outside the realm of art photography as it was then understood. One of these could hardly have been farther from the public eye: Karl Blossfeldt (1865–1932), an apprentice drawing teacher from the Hartz Mountains, began in the 1890s to systematically photograph plant forms—buds, blossoms, stalks, leaves—against plain backgrounds as a reference for artists and craftsmen working under the sway of the fashion for vegetal designs that was about to culminate in Art Nouveau. The pictures stressed the graphic and sculptural qualities of the plants, defamiliarizing them nearly to the point of making them appear artificial, and were startlingly lucid and terse in their rigor.

Although a few of Blossfeldt’s photographs were published uncredited in pedagogical texts starting around 1896, they were not collected until 1928, as Urformen der Kunst (in English the following year as Art Forms in Nature). The book was an international sensation. Although the particular aesthetic that had given rise to it had dissipated, it heralded another: the use of photography for sober, methodical cataloging. This dovetailed nicely with the New Objectivity then ascendant in Germany, and now it can be seen as the principal current in German photography straight through to our day, when Bernd and Hilla Becher and Thomas Struth, among others, continue to effect the sublime through ostensibly repetitive series of mute, affectless images.

Just as Blossfeldt was exposing his first plates with his homemade box camera, a teenager from the Rhineland named August Sander (1876– 1964) was taking some of the earliest pictures that would figure in his life’s work, the monumental People of the Twentieth Century. Whereas Blossfeldt was modest in his ambitions, conceiving of his pictures only as means to an end, the scale of Sander’s project was so overwhelming that it might seem as if it could only have been hatched in the nineteenth century, although Sander did not articulate his scheme until the mid-1920s. His plan was to photograph every sort of human being, making a composite portrait of the age in which he lived.

Sander began his professional life as a pit-boy in the mine where his father was a carpenter, and while there met a photographer hired by its owners to document the place. He acquired a camera by 1892 (the date of the earliest photo in his project), persuaded his father to help him build a darkroom in their home, and pursued photography as a hobby until he completed his military service at the end of the decade. After a period of apprenticeship he became a professional studio photographer, based for most of his career in Cologne, although the recession that accompanied the First World War caused him to work for some years as an itinerant portrait photographer. The pictures that went into People of the Twentieth Century were drawn in part from his studio work, in part from private commissions, and in part from work he did for his own pleasure.

The scope of Sander’s project may have been influenced by the group of progressive artists he associated with in Cologne in the 1920s, but he had long been photographing “types” that interested him as he roamed the Rhineland. The study of types was a standard photographic enterprise of the nineteenth century, and indeed the show at the Metropolitan Museum, which includes two rooms devoted to photographic series that anticipate or parallel or reflect the sort of work that Sander did (brilliantly assembled by Mia Fineman), contains a number of these: William Carrick’s Russian Types, from the 1860s, and Emil Meyer’s Viennese Types, circa 1910, as well as John Thompson’s Street Life in London of 1877, which employs the same cataloging form while not actually using the word.

That a human being could constitute a “type”—could exhibit the representative or ideal qualities of a class or a kind—was a commonplace of the time, the ideological overtones of which went largely unexamined. (This meaning of “type” is the seventh listed in the OED, and the earliest citations illustrating its two subdefinitions—“representative” and “ideal”—both date from the 1840s.) Today the notion seems slightly embarrassing at best, at worst symptomatic of a hierarchical worldview that is racist at least by implication. It suggests the colonial triage that would distinguish higher and lower types among the savages, and calls to mind those period charts in which human physiognomies were paired with their zoological count-erparts—superior, aquiline-nosed humans shown to resemble eagles and inferior, slope-browed sorts compared to baboons. Another such artifact is on view at the Met: the photocomposites of Francis Galton, a cousin of Charles Darwin and among other things a pioneer of fingerprint identification, who illustrated his theories of eugenics by stacking transparencies of faces in order to derive an average: a criminal type, a Jewish type (in practice they look misty, like faces seen in the clouds). A type, whether of carriage barns or Manx cats or gingerbread cookies, is the three-dimensional manifestation, from a pool that is subject to innumerable variations, of a preexisting model held in one mind or many. In other words, it is the embodiment of a prejudice.

Sander divided his project into seven parts, seven portmanteau categories of humans, parceled out primarily according to occupations, with further subdivisions totaling some forty-five portfolios. He prefaced the whole with a Portfolio of Archetypes, made up of twelve pictures: the Man of the Soil, the Philosopher, the Fighter or Revolutionary, the Sage, then the female counterparts of those four, then the Woman of Progressive Intellect, then Two Couples, Propriety and Harmony (both qualities are attached to both couples), and finally Three Generations of the Family. It might appear as though Sander, in his first four categories, was dividing humanity into four universal constants, like earth, water, fire, and air, although both vis-ually and conceptually the distinctions among the four are not strikingly evident (what to the eye distinguishes the Philosophers from the Sages may at most be a trace of skepticism, and we have to take his word for it about the Revolutionaries—we would be none the wiser if the captions had all been arbitrarily reassigned), just as it is unclear why he did not include a male intellectual.1 The couples, meanwhile, are merely upstanding couples—many such are to follow in subsequent categories—and the family is, well, a family. So right away, at the very start of the project, the present-day viewer is confronted by a paradox: one’s distrust of the presumption that humanity can be pigeonholed into types is immediately succeeded by frustration at the laxity of the assignments.

The grandiose encyclopedic conceit—in John Szarkowski’s words “typical of the nineteenth-century Teutonic affection for sorting and cataloging, a Linnaean approach to knowledge that has given us systematic biology, art history, phrenology, and worse”2—persists throughout the project, as do its frequent conundrums. Why is Sport, from gymnastics to boxing to aviation, a subset of the Farmer? Why is the Butcher’s Apprentice placed among the Industrialists rather than among the Workers? What, if anything, is signified by the fact that the father of one of the Farming Families in the first section reappears three volumes later as the Arbitrator? Why are there several photographs in the City that focus entirely on architecture and transport and in which human subjects figure barely if at all?

But such conceptual difficulties and confusions, which frequently force the viewer to stop and question, only prove that Sander, fortunately for him and for us, was neither a thinker nor a bureaucrat. However much he labored at drawing up all-encompassing schemes, he found them subverted at every turn by the reality of his human material. Since he was an artist, he allowed the disruption to occur. We know that he was forever fiddling with his categories, adding new ones and moving contents around in an effort to accommodate his growing mass of pictures and the challenge of fitting in new and unanticipated sorts of people. He does not, however, seem to have trimmed the material to fit his categories. The real value of his scientific conceit was not as a frame or a method, but as a mandate to pursue his subject with unblinking impartiality.

That Sander’s conceptual confusion can best be seen as evidence of his humanity is illustrated in portfolio 42, Types and Figures of the City. At first glance the category seems lumpy and ill-conceived. The title suggests street life, and indeed the folio contains pictures of several unemployed men, a “criminal type,” beggars, asylum inmates, disabled miners and war veterans working as street vendors, an outdoor washerwoman, and a casual laborer. The category also includes the manager of a waxworks, who would not normally haunt the sidewalks, although you could reason that he couldn’t comfortably be shoehorned into any other category. But then there is a Viennese typesetter, who would seem to belong among the Skilled Tradesmen. And there is the Berlin Dadaist Raoul Hausmann, whom Sander inserted into three different categories; two Bohemians (the Cologne artists Willi Bongard and Gottfried Brockmann, friends of Sander’s); and finally (actually the first in the series) there is Sander him-self, identified only as Photographer. Sander could easily have filed his own picture among the Artists. That he included his self-portrait in a catchall bin along with the crippled, the insane, and the destitute might be an ironic gesture; that he also included his friends in it makes it seem more like a statement of common cause.


Sander’s first book, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time, 1929), is a sixty-photo condensation of the project that contains most of the pictures we associate with him: the Village Schoolteacher, the Pastry Cook, the Notary, the Painter’s Wife, the Bricklayer, the Apothecary, Three Young Farmers.3 In the preface, the novelist Alfred Döblin insists that “just as there is comparative anatomy…so this photographer is doing comparative photography.”

The idea of “comparative photography,” when applied to human beings, is darkly reminiscent of a whole parade of projects of classification, all of them intended to establish a scientific basis for discriminating between “us” and “them”: Louis Agassiz’s systematic daguerreotypes of African-American slaves, meant to illustrate his contention that the different human races were actually different species; Cesare Lombroso’s attempts to distinguish and codify the physical characteristics of criminality; Alphonse Ber-tillon’s anthropometrics—his extension of Lombroso’s theories by means of photographs and body measurements—which, although its theoretical basis was discredited, permanently established the use of mug shots. Döblin’s rhetoric suggests that Sander’s project may have been seen as a way to reclaim that sort of classificatory energy for the left (although it should be remembered that in the early twentieth century the left carried on its own perilous flirtation with pseudoscience, notably eugenics).

  1. 1

    Sander does not appear to have written much explaining his choices, and the seven volumes here carry only cursory prefaces by the editors. Footnotes refer the reader to an accompanying volume of essays, which has not, however, been translated.

  2. 2

    Photography Until Now (Museum of Modern Art, 1989), p. 244.

  3. 3

    In print in English as Face of Our Time: Sixty Photographs of German People of the Twentieth Century (Munich: Schirmer/Mosel, 1994).

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