Objective Romantic: The Paradox of August Sander

By Becky Rynor on September 16, 2013

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August Sander, Secretary, West German Radio, Cologne (1931, printed 1990), gelatin silver print, 25.7 x 16.8 cm (image). NGC

German photographer August Sander believed that the key to understanding human nature could be found in their faces. 

“He looked at the human face a little bit like the way one studies and obtains visual data from a specimen,” says the National Gallery’s Curator of Photography, Ann Thomas. “He looked at it with that objectivity and calculating, loving intelligence. That’s what made his portraits so hyper-real.”

It is also what inspired future generations of famous art photographers such as Lisette Model and Diane Arbus, “who saw tremendous beauty in them, but also an edge,” Thomas says.

August Sander is still recognized as one of the great photographers of the 20th century—mainly for his vast oeuvre of portraits, although he captured equally compelling images of landscapes and architecture.

Objective Romantic features 32 of Sander’s photographs, on display at the Mount St. Vincent University Gallery until 20 October 2013. Thirty-one of those are on loan from the National Gallery’s permanent collection of 55 works by Sander. The show is curated by the well-known Canadian photographer, George Steeves.

“To study Sander’s work is to confront paradoxes,” Steeves writes in the exhibition catalogue. “He lived in a period of disorder so profound it produced Hitler’s Third Reich, yet his serene portraits make no obvious reference to the violence roaring outside his own door. The harrowing conditions must have distressed the minds of his subjects even as they looked into his lens. They do not show it.”

As a young man, Sander learned the rules of photography and conventional portraiture by apprenticing in various studios and printmaking shops, all the while honing his own distinct style. In 1909, he and his wife Anna opened a commercial portrait studio in the Cologne suburb of Lindenthal, distributing this printed declaration to prospective patrons: 

I am not concerned with providing commonplace photographs like those made in the finer large-scale studios of the city, but simple, natural portraits that show the subjects in an environment corresponding to their own individuality, portraits that claim the right to be evaluated as works of art and to be used as wall adornments.

“In the early part of the 20th century, when he was photographing farmer families, he photographed them outdoors, in nature,” says Thomas. “But they were formally set up. They would be seated in a family hierarchy, and very rarely did he change the distance between himself and his subjects. He kept a very uniform, very systematic style of photographing. Unless the background alluded in a significant way to the person’s social status, he simplified it enormously, such as in the photograph of the bricklayer bearing his hod.”

It was a career that saw Sander amass hundreds of thousands of photographs reflecting a broad and timeless panoply of humanity.

“He was trying to show people in the various strata of social engagement,” Thomas says. “From people who were close to the land—whom he considered to be the closest to godliness, because they were close to the earth—right through to people who were lawyers, doctors, student agitators and intellectuals, to the person who was a tramp."


By Becky Rynor| September 16, 2013
Categories:  Exhibitions

About the Author

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor

Becky Rynor is a journalist and editor based in Ottawa.

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