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 …

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