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© August Sander

History in Photography 101: August Sander

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August Sander (1876-1964) was a pioneering German photographer whose work has left an incredible mark on the world of portrait photography. Born in Herdorf, Germany, Sander’s artistic journey began as an apprentice to a local photographer, igniting his passion for capturing the human form and the essence of the society he inhabited.

Sander’s most significant and enduring contribution to photography is his magnum opus, “People of the 20th Century” (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts). This ambitious project was a comprehensive visual record of German society during the early 20th century. Sander’s approach was both systematic and empathetic, as he sought to categorize individuals based on their social roles, professions, and backgrounds. He intended to compile these portraits into seven distinct groups, but unfortunately, the project remained unfinished due to the upheavals of World War II.

August focused on capturing his subjects with a sense of dignity and authenticity, allowing their personalities and life experiences to shine through.

The images within “People of the 20th Century” are a microcosm of the German society of that era. From farmers to industrial workers, from artists to politicians, Sander sought to document the diversity and complexity of human existence.

Sander’s work was not without controversy. During the rise of the Nazi regime, the project came under inspection because of its inclusion of subjects from various marginalized and “undesirable” groups. The Nazis viewed Sander’s project as a challenge to their ideology and, in 1936, destroyed the remaining negatives and plates of his work. Despite this devastating setback, Sander’s son, Gunther, managed to save a considerable number of photographs, preserving the legacy of his father’s remarkable endeavor.

Beyond “People of the 20th Century,” August Sander was a prolific photographer with a diverse body of work. He excelled in landscapes, architecture, and documentary photography. His keen eye for composition and ability to capture the essence of his subjects also extended to his other projects, cementing his status as one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century.

Sander used the camera as a tool for sociological exploration, understanding, and empathy. Through his lens, he bridged the gap between the individual and society, inviting viewers to contemplate the human condition in all its facets.

Today, August Sander’s legacy continues to inspire photographers and artists worldwide. His images not only serve as historical records but also evoke universal emotions and a sense of shared humanity. Sander’s dedication to capturing the essence of the people of his time reminds us of the power of photography as a medium for storytelling and understanding, making his work timeless and relevant even in the modern era.

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