August Sander (1876–1964) was a German still photographer. His big project, “Man of the 20th Century” was never fully realized. The book, August Sander, holds 96 pages and 41 b&w photographs of clothed German people. It was published in 1997 by Aperture Foundation, New York. It is one book in a series, Masters of Photography, by Aperture.
The writer John von Hartz penned a 5-page introduction on August Sander, his beginning and work between the 2 World Wars. The portraits have a temporal range from 1911–1932, with many taken in the 1920s. Captions omit names, providing an occupation, plus city or town where the people lived. Some occupations are – priest, circus people, pastry chef, painter, inventor, farm couple, widower and sons, etc., archetypes with common qualities. Of the 41 portraits, 23 are single, 10 are pairs, and 8 are groups of 3 or more. In all, 55 men, 19 women, and 2 dogs are pictured, with 35 of the 41 portraits capturing people gazing directly at the lens.
Sander bicycled into the country. Raised outside the city, he felt at ease when meeting and photographing rural people. He spoke their language. They were not intimidated by him and his camera. His “sitters presented to the camera the personality and attitude of their choosing.” Their faces revealed “the private person.” Von Hartz described Sander as a “genius.” I disagree with this assessment. Sander’s images are neither unusual or creative. His straight, clear, still photographs of people do not expand the possibilities of the medium. Genius is best reserved for Igor Stravinski’s The Rite of Spring, or Pablo Picasso’s Guernica. Sander is well below their level of imagination and creativity. Von Hartz continued, Sander worked “in such a traditional fashion that his originality and insights are all the more remarkable.” Again I disagree with this pompous, bullshit applied to an ordinary still photographer. I would not even attach the label of artist to this man. 41 still photographs of trees would have been more important and impressive.
“He went out among his people and brought back images of their souls.”
Ridiculous. I don’t know how this idea of a photograph capturing or revealing the soul of a person came about, but it should be retired along with other myths of photography. If someone like Yousuf Karsh had photographed me, against any backdrop, his portrait would reveal nothing of what I feel, know, like and dislike, my education, or even what I do for a living. It would be a 2-dimensional image of my phenotype, nothing more. Capturing the soul of a person is not done with a still photograph, by Sander or anyone else. TR