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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)

A portrait photographer based in the Westerwald region of Germany, August Sander spent most of his career on an epic project to create an archive of the German people, which became known as Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th century). He conceived of the project between 1925 and 1927, and worked on it intermittently until the 1950s. Sander developed a taxonomy for his images, meant to reflect the different social classes and professional divisions in German society. Among his classifications are peasants and farmers; skilled laborers, like lawyers, soldiers, bankers, and merchants; women; intellectuals, including artists, musicians, and poets; and such marginalized populations as the insane, gypsies, and beggars.

Adopting a detached, scientific approach, 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. Though they are presented as types, Sander made sure to align his designations for his subjects with how they identified themselves.

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

An image, especially a positive print, recorded by exposing a photosensitive surface to light, especially in a camera.

A representation of a person or thing in a work of art.

The visual or narrative focus of a work of art.

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

A representation of a particular individual, usually intended to capture their likeness or personality.

A previously exposed and developed photographic film or plate showing an image that, in black-and-white photography, has a reversal of tones (for example, white eyes appear black). In color photography, the image is in complementary colors to the subject (for example, a blue sky appears yellow). The transfer of a negative image to another surface results in a positive image.

A Project Interrupted
A series of setbacks prevented Sander from fully realizing his ambitions for People of the 20th Century. In the 1930s, he was forced to put the project on hold as the National Socialists (Nazis) came to power. The Nazis did not like that many of his photographs showed German people who diverged from their idealized Aryan physical type. In 1944, his studio, along with thousands of his negatives, was destroyed by bombing. Though Sander resumed his work after World War II, he never completed his project to his satisfaction.