August Sander: People Of The Twentieth Century
Exceptional body of work captures Germany between 1910 and 1940s
Anyone with an interest in art or history should immediately go see an exceptional body of work by the photographer August Sander, currently on display at Edinburgh’s Dean Gallery.
Sander’s life’s work was an epic project entitled ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, a ‘portrait’ of the society in which he lived consisting of photographs of people across the social strata of Weimar Germany. Sander self-consciously adopted a typological, pseudo-sociological approach, carefully structuring his project into broad groupings (such as ‘The City’), each made up of a series of portfolios. The photographs now presented as part of this project are a fraction of what Sander originally intended – up to 30,000 negatives were lost.
Sander captured Germany at a moment of extraordinary flux, beginning in 1910 with images of farmers (from another age compared to the assured urban ‘New Women’ of the next decades) and ending in the mid 1940s. Each portrait is ascribed a title that reflects the subject’s job or role. Everyone had a place in Sander’s project: workmen, artists, industrialists, Nazis, students, the unemployed, political prisoners (including Sander’s son), soldiers, circus performers and persecuted people. Even the dead are included, as ‘Matter’.
For every image that confirms a stereotype, there is another that confounds it. Each portrait which seems to eloquently ‘speak’ of the subject’s life and experience, is accompanied by a concurrent sense that these are just images, which tell us little beyond the superficial facts – the person’s appearance and the pose that they adopted before Sander’s lens.
For all of Sander’s attempts at objectivity, there is still a sense of interaction between the sitter and the photographer. It is hard to imagine what Bernd and Hilla Becher and Diane Arbus would have produced without the model of Sander’s endlessly fascinating and complex work.
Dean Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 10 Jul