“If we can create portraits of subjects that are true, we thereby in effect create a mirror of the times.”
If you were to take a portrait of every “type” of person that exists today, how many portraits would you need to take? If you grouped all of the portraits together into a series, what would it look like? How would you define and categorize these “types”? Where would you start? German photographer August Sander was likely considering these questions in the mid-1920s, when he began his decades-long project People of the Twentieth Century. Though Sander never completed this exceptionally ambitious project, it includes over 600 photographs divided into seven volumes and nearly 50 portfolios. The seven volumes Sander used as his organizing principles were The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People.
The photographs from this project are mostly black-and-white portraits of Germans from various social and economic backgrounds: aristocrats and gypsies, farmers and architects, bohemians and nuns. The portraits often include familiar signifiers (a farmer with his scythe, a pastry cook in a bakery with a large mixing bowl, a painter with his brushes and canvas, musicians with their instruments, and even a “showman” with his accordion and performing bear), but sometimes the visual clues to a subject’s “type” are not so obvious, leaving the title of the work and its placement in one of Sander’s categories to illuminate the subject’s role. The titles Sander assigned to his photographs do not reveal names, and capture one of the project’s many contradictions: Each photograph is a portrait of an individual, and at the same time an image of a type. Several subjects even reappear in different roles, which reveals an inherent flexibility that persists throughout the project.
“The individual does not make the history of his time, but he both impresses himself on it and expresses its meaning,” Sander explained. “It is possible to record the historical physiognomic image of a whole generation and—with enough knowledge of physiognomy—to make that image speak in photographs.” Many Germans in the Weimar Republic (the government of Germany from 1919 to 1933) expressed an interest in physiognomy, the study of the systematic correspondence of psychological characteristics with facial features and body structure.
As a practitioner of New Objectivity, an avant-garde art movement that sought to depart from abstraction and artifice and return to realism, Sander wanted his photographs to expose truths. “Pure photography allows us to create portraits which render their subjects with absolute truth,” he said. “If we can create portraits of subjects that are true, we thereby in effect create a mirror of the times.” Though his desire was to “honestly tell the truth about our age and people,” Sander’s depiction of German people is unavoidably subjective. The volumes and portfolios he created are inseparable from Sander’s own politics, principles, and priorities.
Sander’s photography career began when he was a teenager, and by his twenties he was operating a portrait studio while working on People of the Twentieth Century. He would often incorporate his studio portrait commissions into the project by adding them to one of his seven categories, but he also traveled across Germany with a large-format camera to find subjects who were not as likely to seek him out. Sander worked on his project through a period of tumultuous social and political change that spanned the Weimar Republic and the Nazi regime, and one of his early book projects, Face of Our Time (which included portraits from People of the Twentieth Century), was censored due to its incompatibility with Nazi ideology. Nevertheless, Sander continued to add to People of the Twentieth Century until his death in 1964.
Sander’s work continues to be a source of inspiration for generations of photographers, including Walker Evans, Diane Arbus, Bernd and Hilla Becher, and Rineke Dijkstra. Sander also changed the way many of us think about portraiture, informed the way we see gender and class, and shaped discussions around the archive as art and the idea of the documentary. In 1931 Sander professed, “Today with photography we can communicate our thoughts, conceptions, and realities, to all the people on earth; if we add the date of the year we have the power to fix the history of the world.”
Jane Pierce, Carl Jacobs Foundation Research Assistant, Department of Photography, 2022