August Sander, a man of the 20th century

A selection of black and white photographs by German photographer August Sander (1876-1964) is currently on view at the Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson until Dec. 20th, 2009.

August Sander, "Pastry Baker"

The German photographer was part of the avant-garde cultural circles of Cologne in the 1920s and a fine observer of his fellow contemporaries. A talented landscape photographer he is particularly known for his portraits of “the man of the street”. The son of a carpenter himself, Sander photographed farmers, chimney sweeps, architects, doctors, children, painters, beggars and more. His direct, frontal approach to photography was incredibly modern for his time and prefigures photographic currents of later decades, including of course Henri Cartier-Bresson’s street photography.
August Sander’s detailed portraits capture every feature of his models who pose and gaze directly into the objective and thus out to the viewer. The subtle contrasts and exact lighting describe their every feature and underline their individuality. At the same the photographer elevates (or reduces?) his models to archetypes in the sense that the titles given make no mention of their name or any other personal information. Insteady, they succinctly state their profession or, if lacking an actual occupation, their social identity such as “beggar”, “unemployed” or “miner’s wife”.

In fact, Sander had wanted to carry out a complete typological study of contemporary society, a sort of comprehensive photographic index of the German population categorized into seven predominant groups: the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artists, the City and the Last People.
Sander’s Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the 20th Century) was never completed and many of the thousands of portraits he made were lost. Nazi authorities did not feel his uncompromising directness was flattering to  the “Aryan race” and confiscated many. However, 1800 portraits (of the original 40,000!) do survive.

Although the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson is somewhat disappointing to those who expect to see a lot of work by the famous French photographer  – there are about a dozen pictures of his on the 3rd floor and a documentary that is shown once a day at 5pm – it is nonetheless worth dropping in for the current temporary exhibition, especially if you have not yet had the chance to discover August Sander’s work.

Fondation Henri Cartier-Bresson
2, impasse Lebouis
Paris, 14th
Métro: Edgar Quinet or Gaité
Entrance fee: 6€


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