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  • Writer's pictureMeirion Harries


For my birthday the Race Marshal gave me a book to treasure - Beyond Bratwurst by Ursula Heinzelmann. This comprehensive catalogue of German food led to a broader discussion about what appears to be a German penchant for cataloguing in general. In the seventeenth century, Gottfried Leibniz, the German mathematician and philosopher, proposed an alphabet of human thought. Franz Walther Kuhn, a lawyer who translated Chinese novels into German, was credited (fictitiously) by Jorge Luis Borges as having discovered the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, a taxonomy of animals supposedly taken from an ancient Chinese encyclopeadia.

In a comic presentation, Borges compared this ancient method with the chaotic system of classification in use by the Institute of Bibliography in Brussels which divided the universe into a mere 1000 sections - number 179, for example, packing together animal cruelty, suicide, mourning, and an assorted group of vices and virtues. Borges' point was that: "there is no description of the universe that isn't arbitrary and conjectural for a simple reason: we don't know what the universe is".

While one might agree wholeheartedly with Borges, a list can come in handy. The Race Marshal wrote a prize-winning biography of Nikolaus Pevsner whose main claim to fame, though perhaps not necessarily his greatest achievement, is the 46-volume Buildings of England series in which he describes our architectual gems. Pevsner, of Jewish extraction, fled Germany in 1933 and brought with him the idea for his catalogue of buildings, modelled on Georg Dehio's similar art history project - the Handbuch der deutschen Kunstgeschichte, a project (like the Buildings of England) that is still ongoing.

So when I mentioned that today we have a guest post about August Sander, who set off with his camera on a on a similarly impossible-seeming quest, it seemed to fit right in to this tradition. Many thanks to the photographer Fred Sansom for this post about one of Germany's greatest artists:

"Three young men pose on a country road, their heads turned as if interrupted on their walk. Formally attired in double-breasted suits and polished shoes, they sport identical hats and each carries a walking stick; they are on their way to a dance. The photograph was taken in 1914 and, with the knowledge of hindsight, it’s hard not to wonder whether they survived the mass slaughter of the First World War.

The image, captioned Young Farmers, appears to have been the result of a chance encounter. August Sander was working in rural communities as a commercial photographer, but he had already conceived the idea for the ambitious project that would earn him his reputation as one of the greatest of portrait photographers — or, as one reviewer dubbed him, the Balzac of the lens.

Extending over half a century, but ultimately uncompleted, People of the 20th Century was intended to be a topographical survey of German society through portraiture. Influenced to some extent by the pseudo-science of physiognomy popular in Germany at the time, Sander planned a seven-volume work of largely anonymous portraits, systematically arranged according to “archetypes”. They would add up to a composite picture of the socio-economic and ethnic character of the nation.

The resulting series of photographs is wonderfully inclusive, extending from farm workers and members of the industrial working class to the middle classes and aristocracy. Sander was closely associated with Germany’s New Objectivity movement, which favoured the reality of daily life over Romanticism or Expressionism. He took a rigorously documentary approach to portrait making. All who came before his large-format camera were formally posed and treated with equal impartiality, be they beggar, baker or banker.

Sander defined his mission as to “speak the truth in all honesty about our age and the people of our age”. He said: “Photography has presented us with new possibilities and new tasks. It can depict things in magnificent beauty but also in terrible truth, and can also deceive enormously. We must be able to bear seeing the truth, but above all we should hand down the truth to our fellow human beings and to posterity, be it favourable to us or unfavourable.”

Inevitably, he fell foul of the Nazis. The diverse nation he portrayed was the antithesis of Hitler’s vision of a single German Volk based on mythical racial purity. He photographed Jews, gypsies, dwarfs and the physically and mentally handicapped.

The majority of his portraits were made during the years of the Weimar Republic, a period of political and economic turmoil, of cultural and artistic innovation. Sander also took pioneering portraits of gays and lesbians during the years of the Weimar Republic. But the gays and lesbians, anarchists, revolutionaries and communists he photographed, the progressive artists, bohemians and androgynous new women, were anathema to the Nazi regime.

Sander had every reason to hate the Nazis - in 1933 they imprisoned his Socialist son Erich for ten years. But he remained true to his artistic credo, photographing with equal neutrality members of the Hitler Youth, the SS and even one of Hitler’s bodyguards .

It made no difference. In 1936 the Nazi authorities confiscated unsold copies of his critically acclaimed 1929 book Face of our Time, a kind of preview of his grand project, and destroyed the printing plates. Further disasters followed. Erich died in 1944 after being refused medical treatment shortly before he was due to be released.

Erich Sander in prison

Sander’s studio in Cologne was destroyed in a bombing raid the same year, and two years later tens of thousands of his negatives went up in flames. The photographs that remain offer fascinating glimpses of ordinary Germans at a key period in the nation’s history. As with the earlier image of the three farmers, we wonder what fate had in store for these individuals. Who believed in Hitler’s vision of a thousand-year Reich? Who was killed fighting for the Fatherland? Who died in a concentration camp?

Victim of Persecution c.1938

Numerous unnamed Jewish men and women entered Sander’s studio, both in the lead-up to the Nazis taking power, when many of them were seeking to leave Germany, and around 1938, when they were suffering persecution. One of the few who has been identified is Benjamin Katz, a butcher and meat wholesaler, whose family firm had operated in Cologne for forty years. The Nazis forced him and his son Arnold to parade through the city bearing anti-Semitic signs. Eventually, he and his wife Adele were sent to the Lodz ghetto; they died in the Chelmno death camp in 1942.

In order to reflect Germany under the Nazis, Sander planned additional portfolios for his project to be entitled The Persecuted and Political Prisoners; the latter to include photographs taken by Erich and smuggled out of prison. With the Jewish portraits in particular, Sander’s policy of presenting his sitters anonymously somehow serves to emphasise their humanity; the individuality of each is respected, but they represent all who suffered persecution under the Nazi regime.

Sander continued to work intermittently on People of the 20th Century until the 1950s. He died in 1964, leaving his lifetime project unfinished. However, a definitive seven-volume version, comprising more than 620 photographs, was published under that title in 2006 by the August Sander Archive in Cologne.

History has added a new layer of meaning to Sander’s portraits, but their artistry and psychological depth extend well beyond documentary record and have influenced generations of photographers to the present day."

Thank you very much, Fred.

This Jurgen Teller, a German fine art and fashion photographer, talking about his reaction to August Sander -

Here is a film made by Gerd Sander, August's grandson, who owns the historic archive of 11,000 negatives and other materials, who shows the portraits and the lesser known landscapes -

This is Fred Sansom's wonderful Flickr stream -

And a trailer for tomorrow -

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