The work of photographer August Sander (Herdorf, 1876-Colonia, 1964) has been the subject of retrospective exhibitions around the world.

The exhibition presented in Barcelona by La Virreina Centre de la Imatge is exceptional in its rigorous respect for the original structure of the major project the photographer worked on during the first half of the last century: People of the 20th Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts).


Curated by Valentín Roma and Gillermo Zuaznabar, the show comprises 196 modern prints developed from the original glass plate negatives. Apart from the odd landscape, almost all the photos are portraits, made in Germany between 1910 and the mid-1950s. Taken as a whole they represent a reasonably complete portrait of the German people during that period, from the Weimar Republic to the end of Nazism after the Second World War.

We encounter the different social classes and professions, men and women of different ages, people from the country and from the city. At times it could appear to be a purely photographic reflection on the human condition, but it doesn’t set out to be one in the fullest sense, because it focuses solely on Germany and thus lacks the aspiration to universality of The Family of Man, the great international project Edward Steichen curated for New York’s MoMA in 1955. And I think it could never have become one anyway, because Sander’s rigour excludes many of the registers that are part of the human condition. Sander might take a dozen photographs of the same individual but in the final instance tended to pick the most neutral image and reject those in which a happy person was smiling, or an expressive person was expressing themselves. No one is perfect, and nor was Sander. Nor is perfection.

Sander made some exceptions – for example, a cheerful young actress – but as a general rule attempted to be as detached as an anthropologist and as objective as a camera, like an ideally neutral recording instrument. However, despite all the historical materialism and German austerity, his portraits are outstanding examples of a humanist photographic vision. His gaze was anti-sentimental, but never superficial or indifferent to the circumstances of those he portrayed.

In the history of photography, August Sander’s work is considered a benchmark for the photographic portrait, one of the first and most influential examples of the genre. In a more general sense, it represented a ground-breaking vindication of photography itself, of photography understood as a self-sufficient medium for representation, conscious of its own value as a medium and of the possibilities of its expressive qualities, as distinct from those qualities characteristic of painting, the most prestigious artistic discipline of the first half of the 20th century. Sander’s oeuvre is one of the first and clearest examples of a photography free of pictorialist complexes.

Although we also find industrial and natural landscapes in his work, Sander dedicated himself first and foremost to portrait photography. His specifically photographic vision of the human being – of his compatriots and contemporaries – could be compared to those of Karl Blossfeldt and Carl Strüwe. Their vision was different because it focused on different subjects: the first on portraits of plants, the second on portraits of microscopic organisms. But the three photographers coincide in their extraordinary combination of depth, objective neutrality and their apparent confidence in the viewer’s imagination. And it is worth mentioning other, later, equivalents. For example, Sander’s gaze anticipates those of Bernd and Hilla Becher in their well-known portraits of industrial architecture, also in black and white.

His son Erich was jailed in 1934 for his political activism against the Nazi dictatorship.

August Sander represents an exceptional case of self-commissioning on an extravagant, enormous scale, a rare case of a photographic mission impossible – or almost. In fact it was possible, despite everything. The value of his work also lies in his determination to create an exhaustive inventory, an encyclopaedic summary. On his death, in 1964, his photographic legacy amounted to 1,800 negatives. However, we should also remember that, in 1946, between 20 and 30,000 negatives and many prints were destroyed by a fire in his storeroom. And that ten years earlier, in 1936, many of his best photos had been destroyed by the Nazis: together with copies of his book The Face of Our Time, they destroyed the original plates.

People of the 20th century consists of 619 photographs organised into a preface (The Archetypes) and seven chapters: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People. The exhibition in La Virreina respects the original structure and has managed to capture in 196 photos – almost a third of the total in this series – a sense of the whole project. Where he was unable to venture on his own, August Sander was helped by his son Erich, who was jailed in 1934 for his political activism against the Nazi dictatorship, and was thus able to make portraits of a number of political prisoners, including himself. Erich Sander died in prison, in 1944, a victim of medical neglect and denial of care.

From the vantage point of a 21st century in which fake news and doctored and fraudulent images and audio abound, one is struck by the great trust Sander placed in the photographic image, which he identified with reliable, true representation. Are photographic appearances not deceptive? Is the face always the mirror of the soul? Are there not faces that are also masks? In the early 20th century, the old pseudoscientific beliefs that identified and judged individuals on the basis of their physical appearance were yet to be discredited. Criminologists and, to an even greater degree, racists were delighted with the theories of physiognomy. It was thus possible to speak of a “criminal jawline” – I imagine one similar to that of the brilliant director Quentin Tarantino – but the truth is that the annals of history are full of murderers both male and female who had smooth, well-proportioned features. In his portraits, Sander never succumbs to this superficial determinism. His trust in photographic appearances leads him in a more lucid direction, neither ethnic or discriminatory, but historical and biographical. It is true that lived experience leaves its expressive marks on the face, even when the subject attempts to be inexpressive. And this can be photographed.

Sander’s portraits allow you to play a photographic guessing game. I’ll give a few examples.

In the first room, I decide that the old man in a particular portrait has a noble gaze; he seems affable, intelligent and at peace with life. The caption reads The Wise One. Next to him, a stiff-looking character, apparently an academic, is described as The Philosopher (1913). Further on, a man in an alert, tense pose looks like a revolutionary. The title reads Communist Leader (1929). I interpret another portrait to be of a man of great power and thus very sure of himself, almost too sure, and the caption reads Banker (1929). Perhaps by 1930, after the Great Crash, he no longer looked so confident.

In some cases, the interpretation is obvious: the builder carrying bricks on his back, the stout pastry cook stirring a mixing bowl (both from 1928), or the philosophy student with his eyeglasses, who seems to be thinking so hard he might explode. In others, not so much. For example, a character in a bowler hat and the look of a card cheat turns out to be a Butcher’s Apprentice. And a woman, inscrutable as a statue, turns out to be a Dance Teacher.

We find a Painter’s Wife (Helene Abelen in 1926 or 1927) who looks utterly liberated and defiant: attractive, dressed in men’s clothes and smoking. But the secretary of a radio station looks no less modern.

She seems eccentric, but perhaps not as much as an authoritarian-looking man walking a fierce dog: the man turns out to be a notary. No doubt a man of order, or rather one used to giving orders. Nearby, there’s a theologist who looks like an anguished heartthrob or stage actor. And a hypnotist; this time I’d say he looks like a theologist or Protestant pastor.

Those whose appearances do not deceive are the Nazis. The various National Socialists portrayed all have something in common: they look evil; bitter, aggressive characters, sadists who intend to get their own way by force. There are several variants, from the SS Captain in the sinister uniform of the authorised exterminator (on his cap, an imperial eagle spreads it wings over a human skull, I suppose that of a Jew, a Gypsy or a communist) to Member of the Hitler Youth, with the look of an ambitious mediocrity, one who thinks he’s finally going to be someone thanks to the powerful uniform he is proud to wear.

At the other extreme we find portraits of the victims of injustice, exploitation and genocide. The unbowed dignity of a woman accused of being a Jew, described as Victim of Persecution (1938).

Or the chronic suffering visible in the portraits of a laundrywoman or a beggar. Sander did not flinch from the sinister aspects of the human condition, those that the powers that be and the most hypocritical among the bourgeoisie tend to hide under rugs or words. And for the same reason he also trained his eye on illness (Children Born Blind) and death: a corpse called Matter.

As a show, Photographs from “People of the 20th century” is weighty enough to give rise to reflections on what the photographic portrait has been up until now, and what it could become in the future. How can a photographic portrait approach a more complete vision of the subject? I have some thoughts on the topic, but it is a big one. For the time being, I’ll simply jot down these three phrases. Every portraitist portrays themselves. Every portrait is the result of a dialogue between portraitist and subject. Every portrait is a partial image.

The exhibition on August Sander, Photographs from “People of the 20th Century” can be seen at La Virreina Centre de la Imatge, in Barcelona, until 23 June.