Exercise 2-10: B&W portraits as a documentary strategy

Read the information that accompanied the August Sander exhibition ‘People of the 20th Century’ at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and write a reflective commentary on Sander’s seven category system. Discuss the implications of his system within the socio-cultural context of the time, make connections with contemporary practices if appropriate.

August Sander’s lifelong photographic project, ‘People of the 20th Century’, is hailed in the notes from the 2002 exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as a project which “set conceptual and aesthetic standards that were unprecedented in the history of photograph [an achievement which] is still considered unparalleled today.” Sander made a unique record of all types of German people which culminates in a compelling archive of the time. The project was also an influence on the work of subsequent photographers such as Walker Evans, Diane Arbus and Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth.

This quote from the Amber collection website sums up Sander’s approach in particularly eloquent terms:

“He set about his task as systematically as a taxidermist, gathering specimen after specimen, from country Jew to storm trooper, from brick layer to fat industrialist, from moon-faced pastry cooks to bloodless dilettantes, all the players of the roles that defined German society. Piece by piece Sander collected the elements for his composite portrait. The Nazi regime found his concept of the German people too inclusive and it became impossible to continue the work.”

Sander systematically used a category system to organise his images based around occupational, social or familial types, producing portraits of documentary and sociological significance. He assigned seven archetypal categories:

The farmer – viewed as the basic archetype of society.

The skilled tradesman – such as the bricklayer, locksmith, shoemaker, tailor, potter and pastry cook.

The woman – women appear largely defined by their relationships to other people, for example, the innkeeper and his wife, middle class couple.

Classes and professions – including clergymen, teachers, businessmen, politicians, soldiers.

The artists – conductor, musician, actor.

The city – various urban dwellers and people on the edges of society such as circus artists, gypsies, transients, city youth as well as persecuted Jews, foreign workers and political prisoners.

The last people – those on societies perimeter such as the sick, old, frail, people mentally or physically disabled.

The style of Sander’s portraiture was that of scientific objectivity, perhaps the best example of which is the way National Socialist soldiers and Jewish people are photographed in the same way.

Sander’s category system could be read as sinister in some ways – the idea that a person can be ‘read’ in terms of their physiognomy is a notion that has many difficult connotations. I found very little comment on this in my research, most writers are full of praise for Sander’s approach and influence. The marginalization of women is also largely unmentioned with the suggestion being that Sander’s categorisation of the female place in German society is acceptable as this is a reflection of the time. interestingly however, most also note that it was not until after Sander’s death that the work gained in influence.

Here are some thoughts about why Sander is held in such high esteem:


As previously mentioned, Sander’s approach is a significant influence on many photographers who followed, most significantly perhaps the Düsseldorf school. Warner Marien (2017: 262) sees Sander as a touchstone for past and present conceptual artists. Bernd and Hilla Becher demonstrate the same detachment from the subject as Sander as well as approaching their comprehensive study of industrial buildings in the same methodical and stylistically consistent way. Like ‘People of the 20th Century’, their water towers gain significance when viewed alongside each other with the viewer studying each image for signs of similarity and difference – of course the significant difference is that with Sander’s work it is people we are studying rather than inanimate buildings. Students of the Becher’s such as Struth and Gursky are also influenced, although this is perhaps more indirect with the Becher’s being the main source. The work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank can also be linked to Sander as they share a similar sort of nuanced intricacy.

The look of the images:

The critical evaluation of Sander’s photography benefits from two significant later assessments – the aesthetic qualities of the images were later categorised as modernist and art photography’s trend for the use of large format combined with a deadpan portrait style portrait style gives Sander’s images a familiarity that makes them appear modern. Certainly, when I have viewed the images, particularly in a gallery setting, I have been struck by how many are difficult to date.

Consistency of approach:

It is the formal aspects of Sander’s portraits in combination with his methodology that make them so successful as a body of work. His general formula was to take full or half-length portraits, pose subjects with props suggesting their work and focus attention on the face which highlighted the subjects distinctive and unique facial characteristics. Most significant however is that most subjects return the gaze of the viewer, staring directly back at us, this

approach gives those photographed a dignity as well as suggesting a democratic relationship between photographer and photographed.

Walter Benjamin:

Benjamin cites Sander in ‘A short history of photography’ (1931) stating that he considered Sander’s 1929 photobook ‘Face of our time’ an “atlas of instruction” in front of which contemporaries should sharpen their “physiognomic awareness” to deal with the increasingly dangerous times. (Jeffery, 1981: 132) Benjamin’s subsequent importance to cultural theory means that Sander benefits from this.

Sander’s politics:

Sander is quoted as having three guiding concepts to his approach: “see, observe and think correctly.” (Warner Marien, 2014: 262) The clarity that Sander expressed his intent with the project helps to allay any possible issues there may be this. For example, his interest in physiognomy as a science which is now discredited but at the time Sander was working of much interest, is often tied to right wing ideologies which could be problematic for appreciating Sander’s work. The fact that Sander’s work was seen as a threat to Nazi ideological views of racial purity is also significant, especially when combined with the portraits of political prisoners and persecuted Jews he made after the second world war. This was something Sander was also personally affected by as his son died while imprisoned for his political views.

Two projects by photographers Zed Nelson and Irving Penn are highlighted in the course notes as demonstrating the direct influence of Sander:

Zed Nelson: Disappearing Britain

Zed Nelson’s series of photographs Disappearing Britain’ is described in the course notes as incorporating traditional and environmental portraiture with a marked journalistic slant resulting in a visual catalogue which is timeless but also possesses a compelling immediacy. For the project, Nelson photographed six groups that he believed were under threat due to their particular way of life becoming extinct. Like Sander, his choices are diverse and it could be argued encompass all aspects of British society at the time in some way. Nelson’s use of black and white and emphasis on the importance of his subjects occupation is similar to Sander’s. Where the project diverts stylistically from is that although the images are shot on location, Nelson chooses to use a studio background decontextualizes the images and focuses attention onto the sitters without any distraction from the background.

The six groups Nelson photographs are: Shipbuilders -Victims of the shrinking British Empire, their once booming industry is now in terminal decline; Boxers – Nelson sees the sport of Boxing as under threat due to increased safety measures and the growing popularity of cage fighting; Cornish fishermen – A group and way of life being forced to extinction by limiting fishing quotas, superior foreign boats and diminishing fish stocks; World War II veterans – Photographed on VE day 50 years after the end of the war, Nelson shares testimony of the veterans who are still affected by the war and laments that fewer and fewer who fought in it are still alive; Yorkshire miners – These images show miners from Maltby colliery, which at the time was threatened with closure, as they came in off after a ten hour shift. The loss of a way of life – most miners worked in the pits all their life as had their fathers and grandfathers before them is lamented along with the fact that unemployment after redundancy was a stark reality for the men; Foxhunters – The ban of foxhunting puts this pursuit of the English country gentlemen under threat, as Nelson observes, “The hunters have become the hunted.”

Irving Penn: Small Trades

Irving Penn was known predominately as a fashion and celebrity portrait photographer, with the series ‘Small Trades’ he created portraits of ordinary working people. Like Nelson’s series, the portraits are shot against a plain background with only the clothes the subjects are wearing and the props they have giving any clue to their occupations. The Getty website describe the subjects of Penn’s portraits as being presented with “dignity and pride” and I would agree with this, I imagine with these images Penn directing his sitters in particular ways to emphasise the positive unlike Sander who was interested in his subjects remaining as neutral looking as possible.

Comparing these two series’ of Penn and Nelson the most obvious difference is the choice of the later photographers to shoot against a neutral background. That many of Sander’s photographs are environmental portraits is important to the series as a whole. Although the two later series’ are interesting in their own right, their scope pales in comparison to the fact Sander pursued his project over many years, combined with the continuity in his vision this is the point I find most inspiring about Sander as a photographer and the project itself.


Morrison, B (2011) Goodbye to all that. The Guardian, 12 March 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2011/mar/12/goodbye-to-all-that-zed-nelson-photographs [accessed 28th October 2017]

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2012) SFMOMA presents most comprehensive U.S. showing ever of August Sander’s monumental photographic survey, People of the 20th Century. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/asandersfmoma [accessed 28th October 2017]

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