Trying to account for a whole country's population is a tall order — just ask census takers. While German photographer August Sander is no canvasser, he had his work cut out for him when he embarked upon a similar undertaking: his epic, lifelong portrait project, People of the 20th Century. Primarily produced between the two World Wars, the work was designed to document the entire German population. Featuring more than 200 prints drawn from Sander's personal archives (he died in 1964), SFMOMA's “August Sander: People of the 20th Century” is the most comprehensive presentation to date in the United States of the landmark survey.
Born in 1876 near Cologne, Germany, Sander specialized in architectural and industrial photography, but it was his snapshots of human subjects that would make history. Now revered in his native land as the father of modern photography, Sander's celebrity came after the fact. He didn't command a great deal of exposure during his lifetime, but has since influenced generations of well-known shutterbugs inside and outside his country, from Walker Evans to Diane Arbus.
Like much of the work that's now associated with the New Objectivity period of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Sander's series attempted to present an impartial record of Germany. Even now, his pictures are compelling not so much for their composition as for their everyday significance. By taking pictures of ordinary people from all classes — farmers, businessmen, painters, philosophers, blacksmiths, and secretaries — Sander constructed an idealistic view of the social order. He then broke these groupings down into seven archetypal units: “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” “The Artists,” “The City” (urban dwellers living on the fringes of society), and “The Last People” (the elderly and handicapped).
Though some marginalized groups — particularly women — were identified largely in relation to other people, the categories were conspicuously unprejudiced: In Sander's poll, everyone deserved to be counted. Such a progressive stance was counter to the Nazi agenda, as was Sander's Everyman portrayal of pre-World War II Germany. During Hitler's regime, he was forced to stop his project, and thousands of negatives were confiscated and destroyed. Sander eventually moved from Cologne to the relative security of the countryside, where he focused on landscape photography.
“Sander has succeeded in writing sociology not by writing, but by producing photographs — photographs of faces and not mere costumes,” writes Alfred Döblin in the preface to Face of Our Time, a 1929 volume of 60 photographs culled from the series. Though People of the 20th Century was never completed, Sander tells a story broader and more profound than that of any reference book.