August Sander (German. 1876–1964). Circus Artists. 1926–32. Gelatin silver print, 10 3/16 × 7 3/8″ (25.8 × 18.7 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of the artist. © 2016 Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne/ARS, NY

Noam M. Elcott (Columbia University) and
Sarah H. Meister (The Museum of Modern Art)


August Sander (German, 1876–1964) created the most ambitious and influential portrait of the people of the 20th century. This encyclopedic photographic project—anchored in the farmers of the Westerwald but extending to the furthest reaches of professional, bohemian, and polite society—was never completed. And its most comprehensive form—over 600 photographs divided into seven volumes and nearly 50 portfolios—has never been exhibited in North America. In 2015 MoMA acquired all 619 photographs that comprise People of the Twentieth Century.


We plan to gather leading art historians, curators, artists, and other scholars and writers once a year for five years. At each daylong meeting, 9–10 participants will each present a single portfolio according to her or his expertise and insight. Over the course of five years, we will return to Sander’s seven basic groupings (The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professionals, The Artists, The City, The Last People) from multiple perspectives: historical and curatorial, artistic and poetic, philosophical and conceptual.


Each annual, daylong gathering combines 9–10 focused presentations of individual portfolios. An intimate group of approximately 50 scholars, curators, and artists will meet at The Museum of Modern Art, surrounded by the portfolios selected by each year’s presenters. Talks and discussions will be recorded and transcribed, and we are exploring ways of sharing this information with a broader audience.


No theme is off limits. Among the numerous topics summoned by Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century are portraiture; the Weimar republic; gender, class, and other social structures; photo-books and archives; documents and documentary; physiognomy (the art and “science” of reading faces); humanism and anti-humanism; Sander’s post-WWII aesthetic legacy; and the multifarious contemporary efforts—honorific and repressive—to compile and organize photographs of faces.

The August Sander Project is made possible through the generous support of David Dechman, Richard Rieger, and Artur Walther.