AUGUST SANDER
PORTRAITS FROM THE TWENTIETH CENTURY

Exhibition Dates: Winter 2002-2003

"Nothing seemed to me more appropriate than to project an image of our time with absolute fidelity to nature by means of photography." August Sander


Andrew Smith Gallery presents an exhibition of photographs by AUGUST SANDER. August Sander (1876-1964) was the great German photographer from the first half of the twentieth century who brought a new, objective realism to photography and redefined ideas about portraiture. Having become convinced that photography and painting were completely separate media and should follow independent courses, Sander strove for photographic portraits that were sharp and clear, free from retouching or manipulation. His most significant body of work was titled, "Citizens of the Twentieth Century," an ambitious, rank-ordered portrait collection of German society. Sander's cool, spare style of portraiture anticipated contemporary works like Irving Penn's "Worlds in a Small Room," Richard Avedon's "Portraits of the American West," and Paul Strand's portraits of Mexican and Italian peasants. A large collection of his portraits will be on exhibit at Andrew Smith Gallery through February 2003.

The show at Andrew Smith Gallery coincides with an exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art titled, August Sander, People of the 20th Century, opening November 29, 2002 and continuing through February 23, 2003. A new book on August Sander titled, People of the 20th century : a cultural work of photographs divided into seven groups, was published in 2002 by Harry N. Abrams, Inc., New York.

August Sander was born in 1876 in Germany. His determination to become a photographer was unusual for the son of miners and peasant farmers, but his family supported his efforts to learn to paint and helped him build a darkroom. He married and earned a living as a successful portrait photographer in his own business that he named August Sander, Studio for Pictorial Arts of Photography and Painting. Trained in painting he easily gave his photographs painterly qualities then in vogue, though later he described the turn-of-the-century fondness for soft-focused effects as the "period of decline." In 1909-1910 Sander began to hone his own vision of what photography should be, regardless of public approval. An award-winning pictorial photographer in his youth, he was soon advocating "straight" imagery over manipulated, and thus ushered in the direction photography would take over the course of the century. He proclaimed: "I am not concerned with providing commonplace photographs like those made in the finer large-scale studios of the city, but simple, natural portraits that show the subjects in an environment corresponding to their own individuality, portraits that claim the right to be evaluated as works of art and to be used as wall ornaments." His clientele for these portraits ranged from farming families to sophisticated Berliners.

Sander's photographs are deeply psychological, as if the artist simultaneously captured the social role people were eager to present to his camera, and also the unique personality behind the role. The two did not always merge comfortably together. In the photograph, "Village Schoolteacher," 1921, a man with neat hair, an expensive walking suit and shiny leather boots stands next to his bird dog. Holding a cigar in one hand and a stick and leash in the other he gazes coldly and haughtily at the camera.

By contrast, in 1926 Sander made a charming portrait of a young "middle class" mother with her child and a small dog. All sit comfortably on the grass looking directly at the camera with lively, inquisitive expressions. The lovely child holds an apple in its hands. The scene recalls medieval images of the Virgin and Child.

A voracious reader, Sander was familiar with the works of Goethe, Schiller, Schopenhauer, Neitzsche, Rilke, and Thomas Mann. He did not embrace a particular ideology or philosophy but valued Wahrheit, (truth). His fascination with the natural world -- people, plants, clouds, geology, herbs and animals -- heightened his awareness of group similarities and common types of appearances. He believed that knowledge of patterns and types would increase an understanding of reality.

Country Girls, August SanderIn the photograph, "Country Girls," 1925, two sturdy blond girls stand stiffly before the camera holding hands and wearing identical dark dresses and watches. It seems safe to assume they are sisters, so closely do they resemble each other in appearance, expression and manner. Indeed, their similarity and closeness is as disquieting as a Diane Arbus photograph, for their dark dresses visually give the impression of one large shape with two heads emerging from it.

In "Hamburg Carpenters," ca. 1929, Sander photographed two young laborers of that era. Both wear top hats, jackets and bell bottomed pants. Their vests sparkle with large silver buttons and one of the youths even wears an earring in one ear.

Sander conceived his idea for "Citizens of the Twentieth Century" as early as 1910, but it wasn't until the end of World War I that the forty-two year old photographer was ready to begin his project. The scope of Sander's photographic vision was immense and unlike anything ever attempted in the history of photography. He intended to produce a body of portrait photographs documenting the entire social strata of Germany, for he believed (along with other like minded artists of his era) that art should reveal the structure of a society.

Bricklayer, August Sander"Bricklayer," 1928, is one of Sander's most powerful portraits, taken at close range of a young man wearing a workman's cap, scarf and vest, who carries a platform of bricks on his shoulders. The light is more dramatic in this image than in most, falling on the youth's face and the platform . His expression is intense and confident and he holds the bricks as if they weigh next to nothing.

Sander photographed German citizens from all classes and walks of life. Rich, poor, men, women, revolutionaries, artists, tramps, professionals, children, laborers, Communists, Social Democrats, Anglo Saxons, Gypsies, and Negroes stood or sat squarely in front of his camera, fully conscious of the photographer's intention and of their own role in society. Sander photographed his subjects in flat light, making no attempt to flatter them, and then printed the unretouched photographs on glossy paper in order to reveal every detail. "It is not my intention either to criticize or to describe these people, but to create a piece of history with my pictures," he wrote.
The Pastry Chef, August Sander"Pastry Cook," 1928, was taken in a commercial kitchen. The cook, wearing a long white coat, stirs something in a large metal pot. The photograph is a study in rounded forms, from the shape of the rotund cook's bald head and heavy, expressionless face, to his massive fist holding the ladle, to his well padded figure, to the bowl itself.

Sander believed in a "functional individual existence and an integral collective order." Yet he lived through the complete breakdown of his world under Hitler's regime. The city of Cologne where he and his family had lived and which he had photographed extensively was destroyed, his home was burned down, and his children were in constant danger for their lives. The anti-Nazi activities of his son Erich in 1934 brought Sander himself under government scrutiny. Although his photographs were never intentionally political the sheer diversity of his subjects threatened the Nazi's idealized doctrine of a pure, heroic German race. They ordered that all the publisher's printing blocks of his volume of photographs entitled, Antlitz der Zeit (Face of Our Time) be destroyed and copies of the book be seized. Sander turned his camera to landscape, nature studies, and industrial architecture. He and his wife survived the Third Reich, but their home was ransacked and their son, Erich, died in 1944 in a Nazi prison.

After his death in 1964 the work begun by August Sander was taken up by his son, Gunther, and today is carried on by his grandson, Gerhard. August Sander photographs are available as limited edition silver prints made from the original negatives and follow the vision and standards set by August Sander. Prices range from $1,100 to $3,500.


Liz Kay