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The Photographic Record

Since its inception, photography has helped build a collective archive of human experience.


August Sander
(German, 1876–1964)

1925. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/8 x 11 1/4" (23.2 x 28.6 cm)

August Sander was a commercial photographer who undertook a lifelong project to create an archive of the German people, which he called Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (Citizens of the 20th century). He began the project in 1910 and worked on it intermittently until the 1950s, systematically dividing the images into different segments of society based on profession and social standing—peasants and farmers; skilled workers like lawyers, soldiers, bankers, and merchants; intellectuals like artists, musicians, and poets; and marginalized populations including the insane, gypsies, and beggars.

Determined to adopt a detached, scientific approach to his subjects, Sander developed a standardized format for his images—typically full- or half-length portraits of his subjects posed with props or wearing clothing associated with their occupation.

One who uses a camera or other means to produce photographs.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

An object used to aid or enhance a story or performance.

The way a figure is positioned.

A representation of a particular individual.

A Project Unfinished
A series of setbacks prevented Sander from fully realizing his ambitions. In the 1930s he was forced to put the project on hold as the National Socialists (commonly known as Nazis) came to power. The Nazis did not like that many of his photographs showed German people who diverged from the idealized Aryan physical type they hoped to propagate. Sander’s studio, along with thousands of negatives, was destroyed by bombing in 1944. He resumed work on his project after World War II, although he never completed it to his satisfaction.

An Inspiration
August Sander’s work has inspired many contemporary photographers, particularly in Germany. Photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher and Andreas Gursky have cited him as a major influence on their work.