An Unprecedented Approach

An Unprecedented Approach

“Nothing seemed to me more appropriate than to project an image of our time with absolute fidelity to nature by means of photography … Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age.”

Across a career spanning 60 years and tens of thousands of negatives, pioneering photographer August Sander (b. 1876) drew a nuanced sociological portrait of Germany’s inhabitants and surrounding urban landscapes. A direct and pared down approach defined the artist’s methodology, preceding conceptual art and strengthening an independence from painting. The practitioner’s highly technical, detailed process offered a new approach to a genre which, up until this point, had strived to create images that mimicked the style of hand drawn works, rather than focusing on the individual.

A new exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, London, offers a range of large-scale pieces taken between 1910 and 1931. Documenting the complex socio-economic situation prior to and during the Weimar Republic, the early works – collectively known as Portfolio of Archetypes – laid the foundation for People of the 20th Century, the practitioner’s wider examination of contemporary ethnic and class diversity. Through wholly idiosyncratic expressions, gestures, poses, clothing and accessories, the sitters – despite each falling into one of Sander’s named and numbered portfolios – offer their own, unique narratives, subverting stereotypes and challenging categorisation. As Susan Sontag (b. 1933) notes in On Photography: “It was not so much that Sander chose individuals for their representative characters, as that he assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks.”

This conceptual framework went on to underpin a lifetime of work, as Sander continued to document people across the many strata of German society.  Each subject – regardless of perceived social status or occupation – was photographed in the same objective manner; including farmers, industrialists, secretaries, aristocrats, the homeless, disabled people and those living on the margins of society. Each portrait held up a mirror to the country’s changing economic situation and has inspired generations of visual artists ­– including Walker Evans and Diane Arbus, Tina Barney, Rineke Dijkstra, and Bernd and Hilla Becher.

Men Without Masks runs until 28 July. Find out more here.

1. Secretary at West German radio in Cologne 1931, printed by August Sander in the 1950s from the portfolio People of the 20th century, III The woman, 17 The woman in intellectual and practical occupation gelatin silver photograph 29 x 22 cm Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, August Sander Archiv, Cologne © Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne. Licensed by Viscopy, Sydney