August Sander: Capturing Reality

By Catherine Wilks


At the turn of the century, the world began to discredit tradition. Many shared an intense desire for modernization, and artists like August Sander found themselves re-defining twentieth century art. There were those who believed that war could act as the catalyst for a more advanced world; however, they romanticized belligerency and were overjoyed when the First World War began. Unfortunately, the realities of war did not mirror their dreams. Technological advances, which men and women once esteemed, soon became their nightmares. Attrition became conventional. After the end of the “Great War,” the archaic legacy of Imperialism resurfaced, and land was divided among the Imperial victors. Primarily blamed, Germany suffered vastly from the Treaty of Versailles. Already in a state of poverty and hunger, the nation was forced to apportion all its wealth and future wealth to the Allies. Writers and artists alike, once disillusioned by glorious war, now sought to differentiate naturalism from abstract idealism and to re-establish order by accepting “archaic” ideas as foundations. August Sander of Germany photographed his fallen country so that he could establish a universal air of empathy and revive a sense of community that opposed isolated individualism.

Many great historical figures have humble beginnings, and Sander is no exception. Born on the seventeenth of November, 1876, in Herdorf, Germany, he was the second child of seven. With his family’s support, he bought his first camera in 1892. As was customary, his school education ended when he was fourteen, and he worked odd jobs, such as mining, wherever he could. Such new sights only served to foster his love for photography, and at this time he began experimenting with the relationship between urban and rural settings. From 1896 to 1898 he served in the German army at Trier, but, unbeknownst to him, his military life was far from over. He worked at the studio Photographische Kunstanstalt Greif in 1901, and from 1904 to 1909 he ran it himself[1]. He won several awards for his photography in this era, and, because of this fame, most of his clients in his early years were wealthy. It is most important to note, though, that Sander participated in and, of course, survived the First World War. His participation in the war and its aftermath mark the turning point in his artistic corpus. He made an even bigger name for himself by shooting pictures of things as they actually were, in their natural states. Unfortunately for Sander, the oncoming Nazi regime would not tolerate these pictures, as they saw them as propaganda for changes in the government. There were many repercussions to Sander’s beliefs, including the burning of his large photo collection. Another hallmark in his life was when Erich, one of his sons, died as a captive in a Nazi camp in 1944[2]. Jaded, Sander ceased photographing people and instead turned his focus to true naturalism found in landscape photography. In 1964, he passed away in Cologne, Germany, but his legacy survives through his photos.

Initially drawn to the allure of an “impressionist style that suited the traditional tastes of his bourgeois clientele,” it took time for Sander to evolve into the photographer known to this day[3]. He was well-known, but when he began a tour of the countryside in Westerwald, “he soon realized that his rural customers had little use for the middle-class decorum and artistry of standard studio portraiture[4].” They wanted pictures of their lifestyle—snapshots of reality. This impoverished community forever changed Sander’s life. Indeed, many of his portrait photographs were done in the Westerwald since the environment spurred his curiosity. To him, the purest form of photography was to take a natural picture. Staged and personalized photos did not fall under his category of modern art.

It seems fitting that WWI soon followed this revelation, as more and more artists adapted to Sander’s way of thinking. Today, he is considered to have been a follower of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity, even before it was officially founded around 1923. The German reaction to the “Return to Order” movement, New Objectivity was the concept that art, writing, and ideas should return to traditional conventions. For artists, this meant a Renaissance or Classical revival. For Sander the photographer, New Objectivity meant naturalism: photographs sans any nonsensical decorum. In his “Credo to Photography,” he argues, “Photography can represent things in grandiose beauty, or in terrible truth, but can also betray incredibly… I hate nothing more than photographs made sugar sweet with false effects and gimmicks[5].” While the rich in Germany may have had a life of luxury, the poor man or woman could not relate to such a lifestyle. Thus, he took pictures of actual reality to which most everyone at the time could relate.

After the War, around 1920, Sander befriended a group of painters who called themselves the Cologne Progressives. “The painters practiced an art that reduced the human figure to abstract mannequins, or ‘types,’ whose pictorial arrangement was meant to reflect the organization of society as a whole,” and in this way they thought that order could be reconstructed in the world[6]. Sander, though not technically a part of the group, sympathized with these beliefs. Thus, his most famous corpus of work, which he called Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts—“Citizens of the Twentieth Century”—was born. It is a collection of five hundred plus photos of everyday Germans in natural, unaltered settings. The titles of these photographs do not have personalized names unless they were commissioned. A photo would be entitled with the person’s occupation and the location. An example is “Coalman, Berlin.” These pictures would also be black-and-white, so the color of things were always left up to the interpretation of the viewer. Therefore, Sander enabled his pictures to become more collective rather than individualistic through his titles and lack of color.

During the 1920s and 1930s, it is clear that Sander probably wanted certain people to see the realities of Germany for themselves. There are many photos of common working class people, but there are also many pictures of the disabled. He called his collection of the physically disabled, mentally disabled, and general social outcasts such as gypsies the “Last People.” Perhaps Sander wanted these people to understand they were not as isolated and alone as they thought. Maybe he wanted those who snubbed the “Last People” to be shocked at how similar they actually were. Perhaps he wanted to critique the current German government, which was rapidly declining into the Nazi era. Whatever the desired intent, his memorable photos resulted in all three reactions. An example from this work is a picture whose title and date have been lost, yet the subject speaks for itself. A one-legged, one-eyed man in filthy attire leans on his crutches while holding a barrel-organ in a public park. The man has a worn face wrought with wrinkles and tragedy, but he is most likely under fifty. This picture stands as a symbol for the “Last People” since the man is ambiguous. Is he a war vet, a fire victim, an unfortunate circus actor, an impoverished hermit, or a mentally handicapped individual? The list can go on forever, but that is the point. Sander’s objective is to be objective. In presenting an impersonal individual, a multitude of people can relate to him.

The beginning of the twentieth century brought with it both new hope and despair. Germany, once proud, faced utter, humiliating devastation. There was a national resurgence of a need for collective empathy, and many artists thought they could bring about such emotion through natural, hyper-realistic art. Thus, the Neue Sachlichkeit movement arose. August Sander stands prominently among these artists because he dared to show the harsh realities of a growing sovereignty by attempting to unify his broken nation. His photographs in the World War period showed individuals with whom anyone could relate. Through plain black-and-white photos of anonymous individuals, he combined subjective subject matter with an objective point of view. His new objectivity led many Germans to a new philosophy of thinking individually while being united. Sander became a symbol for hope during the Nazi era, and it is thanks to people like him that Germany, like a great phoenix, rose from the ashes after the devastating World Wars.


















Bohn-Spector, Claudia. In Focus: August Sander Photographs from the J. Paul Getty

Museum. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000.

Conrath-Scholl, Gabriele, Thomas Schatz-nett, and Agnes Sire. August Sander: Seeing,

Observing, Thinking, One Hundred Masterprints. Germany: Schirmer Mosel

Verlag, 2009.

A Retrospective in Honor of the Artist’s 100th Birthday. Sander Gallery. Washington, D.C., 1976.


[1] Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Thomas Schatz-nett, and Agnes Sire, August Sander: Seeing,

Observing, Thinking, One Hundred Masterprints (Germany: Schirmer Mosel Verlag, 2009): 12.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Clauda Bohn-Specter, In Focus: August Sander Photographs from the J. Paul Getty Museum (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2000): 6.

[4] Ibid.

[5] From Sander Gallery, A Retrospective in Honor of the Artist’s 100th Birthday, Washington, D.C., 1976.

[6] Ibid., Bohn-Specter, 8.

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