Sander approached his subjects with a mixture of sensitivity and sociological objectivity. The precise nature of this endeavor is evident in Young Girl in Circus Caravan: bounded by the geometric order of the picture frame and the caravan window alike, the girl is poised at the threshold between a dark interior and the illuminated world at large—a dynamic suggestive of the camera’s mechanism of rendering an image through light. A melancholic air suffuses the photograph; the child stares back at the photographer (and thus the viewer) as though appraising him in her own right. Her fingers pinch a door key—perhaps she is coming out into the light.
Sander began his career as a studio portrait photographer for hire. That he ended up photographing circus workers, Romany people, and others on society’s margins is indicative of his wide-ranging, itinerant gaze. Yet he was also systematic and an astute observer of the forces shaping history. This portrait went on to find a place in Sander’s audaciously ambitious magnum opus, an attempt to capture modern Germany in a photographic atlas of social types titled People of the Twentieth Century. Sander’s exacting documentary style made him an inspiration to photographers following in his wake. Likewise, his survey has provided an ongoing model for artists seeking to create conceptual artworks that share his archival sensibility.
Publication excerpt from MoMA Highlights: 375 Works from The Museum of Modern Art, New York (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2019)