Faces and far more: the photographic genius of August Sander

I’ve had a good week, exhibition-wise, kicking off with a visit to the Tate Modern’s pleasingly not-too-crowded ‘Picasso 1932’, followed by a first-day (and therefore extraordinarily quiet) encounter with the Royal Academy’s historical survey of summer-show landmarks, ‘The Great Spectacle’. I can recommend both shows, but it was a third outing that gave me the most pleasure. ‘August Sander: Men Without Masks’ – a sizeable selection of portraits by the great German photographer – is at Hauser & Wirth London until 28 July. I do recommend you try to catch it – and it won’t cost you a penny.

August Sander 1
August Sander

Sander (1876-1964) was a pioneer of the photographic medium, not only in eschewing the then fashionable mimicry of painting for a rigorously unembellished aesthetic devoted to representing his subjects truthfully, but in making it his mission to document the population of Germany in all its diversity. He began by photographing the farmers he knew in his village near Cologne, but moved on to single, double and group portraits of all manner of men and women. He would assign each picture to one of 45 portfolios categorised according to ‘types’ – ‘The Man of the Soil’, ‘The Philosopher’, ‘Boxers’, etc – which he then grouped into seven more general ‘archetypes’: ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’ and ‘The Last People’, these consisting of those on the margins of society due to poverty, prejudice, disability or whatever.

SAnder 7What makes the photos so wonderful, however, is not the conveying of ‘archetypal’ characteristics of class, ethnicity or gender, but Sander’s remarkable ability to bring out each and every subject’s utter individuality. (Even the dogs depicted with their owners seem to have a strong, immediately visible personality.) Sander didn’t want to impose some sort of meaning or resonance on his subjects; rather, empathy was the key to his aesthetic, and it shows in the clarity, precision, detail and wholly egalitarian approach he deployed. Everyone is accorded due compassion; secretaries, circus entertainers and homeless people are allowed to present themselves to the camera with no less respect or generosity than industrialists, academics and aristocrats. Sanders’ objectivity made for deeply humane art, and evidently resulted from his having established a rapport with his impressively diverse array of subjects.

Sander 2This inclusive approach, of course, would eventually bring Sander into conflict with the Nazis, heterogeneity being anathema to their ideology. But it did mean that he created a marvellously vivid picture of Germany and its inhabitants. Not that one needs to be interested in that particular historical time and place to appreciate Sander’s achievement, which is surely of universal relevance and interest. In ‘On Photography’, Susan Sontag wrote, ‘It was not so much that Sander chose individuals for their representative characters, as that he assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks.’ Quite simply, the pictures offer sympathetic and penetrating insights into human individuals.

Sander 3That said, the carefully hung selection at Hauser & Wirth – I didn’t count, but I imagine there most be around 80 photographs on display, all of them large-scale – consists of pictures made between 1910 and 1931, so that it covers the years leading up to and through the Weimar Republic – an incredibly interesting time, from which we can learn. The entire display is impressive, and many of the pictures are quite breathtakingly fine. Included here are just a few examples I was able to find online; indeed, the exhibition itself boasts quite a few images I liked even more than the handful in this brief blog. If you can get there before the end of July, I suggest you pop along to Savile Row and find some favourites of your own.

‘August Sander: Men Without Masks’ is at Hauser & Wirth London, 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, until 28 July (open Tuesday to Saturday 10am-6pm). All images courtesy of Die Photographische Sammung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne.

Sander kids


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