August Sander: Father of modern portrait photography

Martin Weinstein
Gallery owner Martin Weinstein stands next to an August Sander photograph of "The Bricklayer," printed by August Sander's grandson.
Image courtesy of Weinstein Gallery

The late August Sander is best known for his body of work called "People of the 20th Century." In the 1920s and '30s, both in his studio and out on his bike on muddy German country roads, Sander photographed every type of person he came across in an attempt to capture German society as a whole.

Sander photographed middle class families, farmers, students, blind children, war veterans, circus artists and beggars. In each photograph Sander had his subjects simply stare at the camera, and hold still.

Martin Weinstein of Weinstein Gallery declares Sander's is his favorite photographer.

"For me what makes him a great photographer is the truthfulness of the portraits, the directness of the portraits," says Weinstein. "It's his attempt to not induce any type of emotion. Very few of the pictures are taken where people are laughing or smiling or making facial expressions."

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One of the first pictures Weinstein ever bought as a collector was a print of Sander's The Bricklayer. In it, a man balances an immense pile of bricks stacked on a plank of wood. The power of the photograph comes not just from the striking image of so much weight on one man's shoulders, but from the steadiness of the young man's gaze.

Weinstein says images like that of the Bricklayer are just as compelling today as when they were taken decades ago.

"I can't think of any photographer who influenced later generations more than Sander. I think that's his single greatest significance," says Weinstein.

"Every person's story is written plainly on his face, though not everyone can read it."

In Sander's photograph of two country girls, you can see the inspiration for Diane Arbus' picture of a pair of twins. In Sander's images of tradesmen like the Bricklayer, the Pastrycook and the Varnisher, you can see the foundation for Irving Penns work. A photograph of a painter's wife dressed in white slacks and blouse, lighting a cigarette, could easily be mistaken for a photograph taken by Richard Avedon.

You can also see the influence of Sander's work on Minnesota photographer, Alec Soth. Soth, who came to Weinstein gallery to see the photographs before they were even hung on the walls, has been fascinated by Sander's images for years.

"I like it because there's nothing sneaky about it," says Soth. "The subject gets to be their own person. The photographer just gets to stare and the viewer just gets to stare and it's that simple. There's not a lot of gimmickry to it, and there's not a lot of artifice, it's just the simple description of things, which is so mysterious and fabulous."

Soth, who's own son is named after August Sander, says looking at one of Sander's photograph feels like being in a conversation with the subject, because it's so intimate.

While the photographs in this exhibition were taken by August Sander over 75 years ago, they were printed only recently by his grandson, Gerhard. Sander worked closely with both his son and his grandson, teaching them his particular methods for printing his work. When he died in 1964, they continued on.

Of the few remaining 8 X 10 prints that August Sander made himself, Martin Weinstein says some could easily fetch a million dollars at an auction. In contrast, the photographs on display at Weinstein Gallery, printed more than twice as large using the same negatives, cost in the low thousands.

"These are all large-format," says Weinstein. "There's never been a show anywhere in the world of large formats, so we've brought this to the Midwest for the first time."

Weinstein says the larger images, which he requested Gerhard to print, give the portraits an even more dramatic presence. Sander took over thirty thousand pictures in his lifetime. Unfortunately the majority of those images, and their negatives, were destroyed.

The plates for his first book of photos for the People of the 20th Century project were trashed by Nazis who disapproved of Sander's portraying German people as more than just an Arian ideal.

Far more negatives were obliterated by a fire resulting from Allied Forces bombing his home city of Cologne.

Approximatley eleven thousand images remain today, and are kept in the August Sander Archive in Germany.

Those selected for the exhibition at Weinstein Gallery will be on display through the end of April.