August Sander’s incredible photographic record of 20th century life

If summer wouldn’t come to me I would go to it. And so I drove up to the beautiful if past its prime town of Banff and the magnificent Duff House.



Why? That’s where summer has been hiding in this part of the world – and to see an exhibition of the German photographer, August Sander’s work.

I first came across Sander’s absorbing portraits when I picked up a postcard somewhere in Germany. It may have been Cologne, then again it could have been anywhere. The place escapes me but the image never has for it seemed to encapsulate so much that was German – the stocky, round-faced figure of a cook with his pastry basin and wooden spatula before rubbing flour to fat with a touch of sugar, his podgy fingers nimbly blending and separating, rolling and baking to produce some wonderful light and delicious concoction of pastry for which his nation is famous.

I must admit I find the baker a slightly scary figure with his eyes staring away from the camera and it is the contrast between irrational prejudice and his innocuous trade which adds to the fascination of Sander’s whole approach to portraits. He might have chosen a scrawny weedy looking baker but he chose this well-rounded figure who wouldn’t look out of place in a painting by George Grosz. Sander’s Pastry Cook wears a spotless white tunic over dark trousers and highly polished shoes although the tiled floor of the bakeshop is flour splattered and the bench none too clean. I look from the cook to those intriguing metal drawers by his head and wonder what they contained – currents, ginger pieces, preserved violets or perhaps sharp-edged cutters and pastry moulds.

August Sander died in 1964 at the age of 88 years and throughout his long life he set out to capture the face of Germany. It was his fortune and misfortune to have been alive during the period of greatest notoriety in his country and it was all recorded by this great man.

At Duff House there is a selection of these portraits displayed under Sander’s categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People. By 1945, his archive amounted to more than 40,000 images including the pastry cook, a policeman with his enormous whirlybird moustache, a cleaner and an incredibly charming one of a porter – here on the right his face 

weather-beaten, in need of a shave his eyes sparkle with humanity and humour and exhaustion. It is a magnificent portrait of an ordinary man representing his dignity as a worker. There are bohemians looking as they should, slightly unkempt and cerebral and Nazis upfront, eagerly having their pictures recorded. One is set in a rural setting, against one of those old rural houses with exposed timber, reminiscent of Heimat.

And a beautiful image of a bride who might have been fashioned from a German woodcut with her fresh, freckled complexion, deep inset eyes and a garland of flowers attached to her hair.

Sander was at home in the country and city. He was the son of a carpenter from the small town of Herdof  – which few have – in Western Germany and began his career as an assistant to a photographer working for a mining company. Such was Sander’s enthusiasm for his work that he took to creating his own images capturing his native countryside as he cycled from place to place and it was not until 1911 that he embarked on his ambitious project – People of the 20th Century – his record of ‘45 types’. ‘Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age,’ he wrote. By this time Sander was established in Cologne.

It is clear that Sander saw his work in terms of the wider art movement and he associated his brand of uncompromising exact photography with the Kölner Progressive – a group of progressive artists working in Cologne – artists such as the constructivist Franz Wilhelm Seiwert and Heinrich Hoerle whose art was condemned as degenerative by the Nazis.

Sander, too, felt the oppressive hand of Nazism on both his approach to his work both factual and conceptual and in his personal life. The plates for his book of German life, Antlitz der Zeit  – Face of our Time, were destroyed and his son, Erich, a left-wing political activist and member of the Socialist Workers’ Party was picked up and imprisoned by the Nazis and died in jail in 1944.

The publication Face of our Time acclaimed by the likes of Thomas Mann and Walter Benjamin but was banned by the Nazis, although individuals were happy to have themselves recorded by this prominent photographer.

Sander’s subject matter took in all sections of German society including workers and financiers, socialists and socialites, bohemians and Nazis, death and brides, circus performers and farmers through the lens of his large tripod camera. He captured the juxtapositions of person and place, people and time, humanity and inhumanity, humility and arrogance, indulgence and suffering, poverty and excess. Life as it is. And the contradiction of assumptions we all hold.

At Duff House you can see his Young Farmers on the Way to a Dance scrubbed and dandified with smart ribbon hats, stiff white shiny uncomfortable looking collars, well brushed dark jackets, cravats and canes as they make their way to find fun and romance in the village hall instead of ploutering knee deep in soil behind the plough.

His category of The Last People is intriguing for its title and for what Sander includes. At Duff House there are a very few images including Two Blind Children and Midgets. Both of which were likely to have succumbed to the Nazi quest for perfection.

Apparently Sander had advised his subjects not to smile while he was photographing them which given his laborious method of operating with glass plates was no difficult feat for his subjects had to remain still an unnaturally long time. There are, however, half smiles playing across the lips of some of his individuals, or as in the case of the porter, through his eyes. Sander may have been looking for objectivity and consistency across the breadth of his series but the result is overwhelmingly sombre which may account for my attraction to the aforementioned porter. What is clear throughout the exhibition is that Sander allows the people in his portraits to speak for themselves. He has not set them up to imply his view. In this way he is not favouring one over another nor caricaturing any. He presents them equally and it is up to us to make what we will of them whether that be his wife holding their newly born twins, one dead, or the young SS officer proudly confident posing  in his black uniform.

Die Photographische Sammlung der Kulturstiftung der Sparkasse KölnBonn contains a huge catalogue of Sander’s photographs – over 5500 original prints and 11000 negatives.

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