Critical Analysis on August Sander’s People of 20th Century

 “Nothing is more hateful to me than photography coated with gimmicks, poses and false effects. Therefore let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age”

–August Sander, 1927



People of 20th century” is a lifelong project of German photographer August Sander. It is a series of portraits, which captures the status of common man, involved in their jobs and relationships whilst the war torn Germany. It is one photography body divided into seven parts which illustrates the status of early 20th century Germany.


The idea of his vision is considered to be the most intensive thought in the history of photography. Nobody before him had thought of doing what he thought, attempted and which lasted during his lifetime till his death. His intention was to show the social structure of Germany in one body of photographic work.




Sander’s aim was to make a photographic physiognomy of Germany of his age. He wanted to make a historical representation of his time for the future to look at. He was unaware that his time will go under trauma which faced two world wars during his project. Initially he photographed farmers at Westerwald. He divided this work into “archetypes” of human characteristic, who contribute in building of a society. It was after shooting the farmers he looked at his work with a broader perspective and decided to compile portraits of people divided into seven categories; the farmers, the skilled tradesmen, woman, classes and professions, the artists, the city and the last people. For doing this Sander photographed people from all walks of life. Rich, poor, farmers, brick layers, artists, politicians, religious heads, mothers, children, father, widower,  heads, cooks, musicians, famous movie stars to jobless people, everyone faced Sander’s lens, knowingly or unknowingly to be part of the history. He tried to make his work less fancy as possible, as he had desired. From the beginning his purpose was always to represent his work is a historical way. He was confident about creating something that people will look back years later.


After working on his idea for thirty years, in 1929, Sander published a glimpse of his work, Face of Our Time. It is a series of 60 portraits. With an introduction written by Alfred Doblin, it has the flow of Sander’s idea of seven parts. It begins with country people and moves to the farmers, the people from different backgrounds, their professions and has a bitter end with the section which he calls “the last people” who are usually jobless or homeless. The book was politically controversial and was seized by the Nazi’s in 1936. All the copies of his work were destroyed. Not only his book, but in the war struck Germany, Sander lost more than 40,000 negatives. The reason for this is suspected that it did not glorify the Nazi nor ridiculed it. In a way Sander levelled the Nazi with common people, which outraged the Nazis and led the destruction of his work.


During the 1930s Sander, sander faced many professional and personal problems; shutting down of his studio, burning down of more than 40,000 negatives and arrest of his son. For almost a decade sander took a break from People of 20th Century and resumed it in 1939.



Style of Photography

By the opening quote of this essay we learn that Sander was not in favour of posed pictures. We can’t help but notice most of his pictures are actually posed. It is highly possible the reason for this could be that in the age of portable fast cameras, Sander still preferred to use old, not easily moveable and long exposure cameras. Most of his pictures are made with seven seconds long exposure and required the sitters to stay still.


It is interesting to observe all the photographs which are mostly decades older than each other, but the subjects or the sitters have the same expression in their eyes. In The Suit and the Photograph, an essay by John Berger, he observes the portraits and writes “They each look at the camera with the same expression in their eyes. Insofar as there are differences, these are the results of the sitter’s experience and character – the priest has lived a different life from the paper-hanger; but to all of them Sander’s camera represents the same thing.” (About Looking: John Berger, 1980: 31). Even though Berger mentions this to be critical about Sander, it is a true fact that Sander successfully moulded his subjects into common facial expression. A strong gaze, looking straight into the lens is the identification of Sander’s photographs. Photographing people in the background with their literal place of work is something we notice in his pictures. Some of his portraits of people of higher class of the society do not reflect their place of work but just a plain background with a flat light. Sander tried to squeeze in human race without the boundaries of classes, profession, and religion in one platform and seven sections


o   The Farmer



The man of soil



The Philosopher



 Young farmers on their way to dance


The first section, “The Farmer” is dedicated to young peasants, peasant men and women, peasant children, peasant families, peasants’ festivities, their everyday life. It is a very well planned representation of life in a small town. He begins this section of portraits of the farmers who had sowed the seeds of idea of People of 20th Century, whom he calls as “the archetypes”. Sander relates himself a lot to this section in many ways. He mentioned in his 1954 introduction to the portfolio “The models for the scheme arose from a small area around my birthplace in Westerwald. People whose habits I had known from my youth seemed, by virtue of their strong connection with nature, ideally suited to the realization of my idea…. I classified all types, who had all the characteristics of mankind in general” (In Focus: August sander: photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum: 12). As Sander grew up in farm lands, it is highly possible that he knew these people personally. It maybe because of this intimate connection with his place of birth and the understanding of the people’s connection with nature, Sander categorized these people into “archetypes”. He portrays these archetypes fundamental role played by the individual in a balanced society. He referred to them as the earthbound man, philosopher, the fighter or revolutionary, and the sage.

Apart from these archetypes, he has included pictures of other people of different age groups, which form a story within itself. It begins from series of pictures of peasant children, moves on to young peasants, then to a wedding of a peasant, followed by series of photographs of young couples, which again grows to middle aged couples, also a picture of silver wedding of an old couple, and moves on to much older couples. He cleverly documented life in a small town using people of all age groups to and by portraying different stages of life. Sander’s photography with each section always deals with how the society grows. The children grow up, usually inherit the work of their father, which in this case is farming, they get married, have their own children, and grow old with their spouses. It is interesting to notice he also adds a picture of an old peasant on his way to a funeral, probably of his wife.


ImageForester’s child      




Peasant children      



    Young peasants




                 Peasant girls         



Peasant bride               



         Peasant family




                      Peasant couple              



               Peasant jubilee wedding                   




 Peasant on his way to a funeral


 o   The Skilled Tradesmen



In this section sander made portraits of people indulge in common jobs such as bricklayers, locksmith, road workers, shoemaker, theatre decorator, blacksmith. Most of these pictures are shot with their workplace in the background, or the subjects literally doing their work. One of the most striking pictures in this series is of the brick layer carrying bricks on his shoulder. His body postures seem to be humorous. The humorous element shifts to haunting as we look into his eyes; confidant, sharp, directly looking into the lens. His gaze seems so powerful we don’t tend to realize the weight he is carrying on his shoulders. This picture is possibly taken on a construction site, which is the work place of this labour.


The rest of the pictures in this section is mostly shot in a similar manner; the pastry cook in his kitchen with his huge mixing bowl, the workers in the iron factory, and the varnisher at the door. All these pictures are shot in the workplace of these men. However there are some pictures like the locksmith, the fitter, the theatre decorator which do not reflect the work place, but the work they do is obvious. On a plain background the locksmith is almost smiling with bunch of keys in his hands and the fitter in a dirty mechanic suit are the examples of such kind. One thing which is common in all these pictures is the gaze of the people, staring into the camera. They may set different moods to the pictures, but it’s the eyes which are loudest in all Sanders’ pictures. Sander illustrated the state of working class in the post war Germany.


o   Classes and Professions

The section of the skilled tradesmen and the classes and professions go hand in hand. They both speak about the work people are doing. The difference arises when you analyse how much money a man makes out of it, which eventually divides class of society the person or their family belongs. Sander has picked every element which makes a society. A teacher, religious heads, engineers, industrialists, all these aspects are important in a society as it shapes people’s mind. It takes turn when you see series of portraits of people working for government; postman, railway officials, saving-bank cashiers, custom officials. It reaches to level where we only see political figures who are usually founders of socialist worker’s party, founder of league of spiritual renewal party, parliamentarian, mayor, duke or just revolutionaries. What follow is Sander’s controversial portraits of young soldiers, Nazi soldiers, member of Adolf Hitler’s SS Guard, military pilot. One of the most striking pictures is of a young Korps student with scars all over his face.


Sander again represents the growth here. He covers everything between the teacher’s job, which is training students to be highest level on men, and it reaches there with the respect men gain in the military. The element of growth never dies in Sander’s work.


o   The Artists

Sander takes the viewer of the book out of the harsh realities and into the world of art. Portraits of painters, sculptors, musicians, actors, writers, architects have a section in People of 20th Century. Sander’s association with Group of Progressive Artists led him in to make many contacts with all kind of artists of his time. Due to this close relation with artists, Sander has inclination towards the presence of artists. By dedicating a complete section to artists Sander made clear the impact of artists in society. Because he was part of the Group of Progressive Artists, most of his sitters are the ones who Sander had known closely.


o   The Woman



Professor Leopold Korensky with his wife and children


The perfect example to describe this section is looking at the photograph of Professor Leopold Korensky’s family. The man and the children of the family are looking somewhere else as the woman of the family is looking straight into Sander’s lens with a strict gaze. There are few more pictures with the similar settings. He’s attempted portray the fact that the only element which hold a family together is a woman. Sander has mostly portrayed woman in his book based on their relationships; mother and child, wife, divorced wife or sister. Other than that it shows professions of women; dancing teacher, manageress of a dress firm, secretary, and typist.


o   The Last People

This is the concluding section of Sander’s book. It contains portraits people who you wouldn’t remember. It could be a homeless man you passed by on street or just a jobless man, a charwoman cleaning the floor or just a gipsy mother and child. Over all this section is dedicated to people who do not own anything, who are not responsible for anything and who do not belong anywhere specific in the society but just in a section page in Sander’s book. It is drastic to see how Sander closes his book cutting his flow of growth he always followed. But without this section Sander’s goal would be incomplete as this was a huge part of the society.


In his 1931 essay A Short History of Photography, Walter Benjamin marks August Sander’s work as nothing beyond portraits of people. He says “August sander has compiled a series of faces that is in no way inferior to the tremendous physiognomic gallery mounted by an Eisentein or a Pudovkin, and he has done it from a scientific point viewpoint” (SW 2:520)

Benjamin’s statement can be supported to some extent. If these portraits are viewed individually, and not as a book, then they are nothing but portraits of people. But these portraits are meant to be together to make an impact when they are put together in order to the seven groups that Sander arranged.

 Alfred Doblin, who has written the introduction of Face of Our Time, has a contrary view. He describes the portraits in the introduction as “The photographs you are to see here are this philosopher’s expression; each one speaks for itself, and altogether, in the way in which they are arranged, they are more eloquent than anything I could say” (Face of Our Time: August sander; Alfred Doblin: 9)

Each picture individually is a brick which has built up Sander’s physiognomy of his time. The idea of seeing the pictures not as one body but as individual portraits would change the meaning of Sander’s aim.

 Over the years Sander’s claim of disliking posed or pretentious pictures are also questioned. Stephen Bull, a military historian and a writer, in one of his recent articles mentions “Perhaps there is something suspicious too about those folks depicted in the principal mass of Sander’s project. Many of them could almost be character actors trying out roles for their portfolio. The ‘Trade-Unionist’, sleeves rolled up to his elbows, poses dramatically in front of a white backdrop. Others display basic props; a ‘Postman for registered mail’ pretends to fill in a form: an ‘Unemployed man’ waits, cap in hand, a ‘Barrister’ holds up his papers. Rarely do we see these people actually acting out their roles.”(



People of 20th Century is an idea which survived world’s two greatest wars. Even after working on it for about five decades, it is considered to be incomplete work of August Sander. If compared to Sander’s original aim, it can be concluded that he was successful at what he wanted to see, a physiognomy of Germany of his time.




August Sander- Photographer Extraordinary – Thames and Hudson Ltd,. London – 1973 August Sander- Face of Our Time – Schirmer Art Books- 1993

In Focus: August Sander- J. Paul Getty Museum- 2000






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