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August Sander 1876-1964
Biography, exhibition of and photos by the German photographer

Article added on June 29, 2004
  
The German photographer August Sander is best known for the portraits of his sociological study of German people entitled Man in the Twentieth Century or People of the 20th Century. He started the series of photos in the 1910's, its concept however, to show universal types in each social and professional class as well as the familial contexts of his time, was something he only developed in 1925-27.

It is lesser known that August Sander was also interested in inventorying Germany's landscape - mainly of his native Rhineland-Palatinate region. The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. covers this ground with the exhibition Photographs of the German Landscape until September 5, 2004. The thirty photographs date all, with one exception, from the 1930's and 1940's.

Many masterpieces of The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. are landscape paintings. Therefore, it was perhaps inevitable that the first photographs it acquired in 1949 were nature studies. At the beginning of the 21st century, Kent and Marcia Minichiello promised the collection forty landscape and nature studies by August Sander. The photographs represent the Phillip's largest holding by one photographer.

Kent and Marcia Minichiello knew August Sander's work from several sources, including his grandson, Gerd Sander, a photographer and Washington gallery owner from whom they purchased landscape photographs of his grandfather. The collection was later complemented by photos found at auction.
 
August Sander was the son of a miner, born on November 17, 1876 in Herdorf, a small coal-mining village east of Cologne. His mother was an herbalist who took him foraging for wild plants which made him discover his love for nature.

After attending one of Dresden's art academies as a photographer and painter, his early career led him to Linz, Austria in 1901. He worked at the Photographische Kunstanstalt Greif, where he took over leadership in 1904. Landscape formed the core of his first exhibition at the Landhaus-Pavillion in Linz in 1906.

Landscape also occupied an important place in August Sander's portrait work of Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (Man in the Twentieth Century). In 1931 he said in a radio lecture: "In landscape we recognize the human spirit of the time, which we are able to capture with the help of the camera. The same applies to architecture and industry, and to all human efforts, large and small. Landscape, its boundaries defined by a common language, conveys the physiognomy of a nation's chronological state." In the light of all this information, it is shortsighted to interpret August Sander's landscape photographs of the Nazi era as a simple site for "internal emigration".

During the 1930's and 1940's, when August Sander came under pressure by the Nazis who seized his printing plates for his book Face of our Time, August Sander focused on nature and explored the countryside near Cologne. His work was restricted during The Third Reich because his interpretation of German society did not fit into the Weltanschauung of the Nazis. Another reason was that one of his sons was a communist, who was interned and died of an untreated medical condition.

After the Second World War, publications such as Flora of the Rhine, Rhineland Architecture from the Time of Goethe to Our Day, Man and Landscape made August Sander popular. During his lifetime, his fame culminated with the inclusion of some of his works in Edward Steichen's legendary 1955 exhibition Family of Man at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. August Sander died after a stroke in Cologne on April 20, 1964.

The Natural History of the German People by Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl (1823-1897) was a popular success and led to the development of forestry in Germany as a serious discipline. It exerted its fascination still during the times of the Third Reich. The blood and soil policies (Blut und Boden) by the Nazis was influenced by Riehl's work. He believed that the forests where "the heartland of [German] folk culture... so that a village without a forest is like a town without any historical buildings, theater or art galleries." Riehl advocated a pre-Christian identification of Germany with forests. Despite the posthumous Nazi embrace of Riehl, the man of the 19th century also appealed to leftist writers such as Walter Benjamin and Alfred Döblin (article in German), who both were also enthusiastic about August Sander's photographic work. Döblin even wrote the preface to Sander's Face of Our Time.

Like Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was an influence August Sander acknowledged, the photographer did not distinguish between art and scientific imagery. The exhibition curator Stephen Bennett Phillips finds it likely that Sander drew on Goethe's idea of the archetype, for both his sociological portrait project Man in the Twentieth Century as well as his portraits of plants and trees.

In his books about the German landscape, August Sander devotes most of his texts to the geological evolution of the Rhineland and the combination of history, geology and land use. He was interested in the geological, cultural and economic history of the regions he portrayed. He looked for explanations rather than for beauty.

The photographs in The Phillips Collection mainly represent broad views of landscapes. They are complemented by interior woodland scenes and studies of single trees and groups of plants. The last group of photos show "paths through the woods". The exhibition is an occasion to discover the lesser known side of the portraitist of the German people; men are nothing without their landscapes.


 

August Sander: Photographs of the German Landscape. The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C., 2004, 82 p. ISBN: 0943044332. Exhibition in Washington D.C. until September 5, 2004. The exhibition catalogue is the main source for this review article. Book your hotel in Washington, D.C. online.


August Sander: People of the 20th Century. Abrams, 2002, 7 volumes, 1400 p. Get the books from Amazon.com or Amazon.de. German edition/deutsche Ausgabe: August Sander. Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts. Gesamtausgabe, 7 Bände, Schirmer/Mosel, 2002, 1436 S. Bestellen bei Amazon.de. August Sander's masterpiece. He began working on his "typology" of German people in the 1910's, but developed the concept as late as 1925-27.
 

 

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