Young farmers stride out to a dance, wearing their hats at a rakish angle. A careworn Jewish woman poses for her identity card. The conscripted soldier and an SS functionary stare into a camera, the former seems uncertain and fearful, the other self-important and secure.
What can you really tell from these portraits? Everything, believed August Sander, the great German photographer, because, he maintained, “every person’s story is written plainly on their face”.
These images and thousands more, captured without clever lighting or the trickery of Photoshop, were catalogued and published as part of Sander’s mighty goal: a portrait of mankind in the 20th century. The remarkable extent to which he achieved his objective is revealed in a moving and evocative display of 170 photographs, opening this month in Edinburgh.
Nearly 50 years after Sander’s death, no one now doubts his achievement. His influence is shot through the work of other artists. It was Sander’s deeply humane studies of dwarves and blind children, of the dying and the dead, that compelled photographers such as Diane Arbus to follow him to the margins of society for inspiration. In his lifetime, inevitably, the very qualities that attest to his genius would mark Sander out for harassment. At the height of his creative frenzy Hitler came to power and Sander’s work was immediately suppressed.
For Gerd Sander, 70, the custodian of his grandfather’s archive, the reason for these attacks is clear. Sander “did not show Germans as the Nazis liked them to be seen” and would not pander to the notion of an Aryan ideal.
Such temerity had consequences. In 1934, Sander’s Face of our Timecollection was destroyed by National Socialist thugs. The same year his beloved son, Erich, Gerd’s uncle, was imprisoned by the Nazis as a communist. He died ten years later in Siegburg prison of an appendix condition that could, and should, have been treated.
Nor did the end of hostilities bring relief. Any notion that Sander would be lionised by a grateful German people for bravely chronicling the human story through the war years is scotched by Gerd. He grew up with his grandfather and has bitter memories of the manner in which the old man was ostracised as an artist. “Nobody could confiscate anything or smash things up as they had before, but it was not as if he was accepted as someone who had made a record of the period,” Gerd says.
Then he recalls the praise showered on the film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, whose Triumph of the Will survives only as a chilling reminder of the Nuremberg rallies. “That Nazi bitch,” Gerd snaps. “She was still, until her final days, the great heroine as a photographer. Of course, she denied ever having known about atrocities.
“Sander, in the late 1940s, included all those people in his work, the Jews, the persecuted. But after the war there were many who still said ‘the Jews are the cause of all the evil that has come down on Germany’. It is a sentiment that has not gone away completely yet.” It may be no surprise that while his grandfather’s archive is held in Germany, Gerd administers it from his home in northern France.
And what an archive it is. Sheer longevity ensures that Sander’s catalogue delivers a stunning panorama of human history. Born the son of a carpenter in 1876, he acquired his first camera in the 1890s. An early photograph shows him to have been a dapper young man with a pointed moustache, who is pictured playing a lute and sitting alongside his wife Anna. Sander set up his first photography business in Linz, Austria — the town where Hitler was brought up — but left for Cologne in 1910. There, he continued to earn a living through commercial portraiture, but as he toured the countryside around the city, photographing the proud farmers and their stoical wives, the notion of his lifetime’s work was already forming.
People of the 20th Century finally began to emerge in Weimar Germany of the 1920s. It would be “a physiognomic image of an age”, declared Sander, presenting “all characteristics of the universally human”.
Categorising his subjects under headings and sub-headings, he set about the task with astonishing attention to detail. He recorded every class of person, in any walk of life, from the captains of industry, who happily paid for their portraits, to the pedlars and Gypsies who turned up penniless at the studio door.
All of human life is here. The loopy grins and gawky stances of his two boxers tell us everything that we need to know about their sporting prowess. We sense the desperation of the Turkish immigrant, eking out a living as a mousetrap salesman in the midst of the Great Depression. The fat, doughy hands of a pastry cook seem swollen with pride, like the rest of his body.
Few of these people were ever identified in his records by Sander, though some names of famous industrialists and artists were added after 1945. Sander believed that his sitter’s essential humanity would emerge if he was displayed anonymously.
When a selection of 60 prints was shown in Cologne in 1927, he offered an explanatory note: “If I, as a normal person, can be so immodest as to see things as they are and not as they should or could be, please forgive me, but I cannot do otherwise.”
The dark pall of Nazism shrouded his achievement until the very last years of his life. In 1958 Sander was made an honorary member of the German Society of Photographers, and received its culture prize in 1961, three years before his death.
He went to his grave with a secret. A series entitled Political Prisoner, which features a photograph of Erich, his son, and a sequence of portraits from inside Siegburg Prison. It has always been assumed that Sander himself shot these photographs on a visit to the jail, but that was not the case.
“Erich photographed himself, using time exposure, in his cell,” Gerd explains. “He photographed the other people too. We have about 40 negatives. They were taken for identification purposes. He made copies and a priest smuggled them out.” Sander included them in his catalogue as a statement about victims of political persecution. He then photographed his son’s death mask. It is the last image in the archive.
“You might ask me, ‘how can you include photographs that he didn’t take?’ My father always said to me before he handed over responsibility of the archive, ‘You will have to explain that one day to the world’. There is nothing to explain. The truth is best. It is an homage to his son. Erich was very important to him, he was always talking about him. August had his portrait of Erich’s death mask on his living-room wall. He didn’t ascribe the pictures to him because he didn’t see the name as being important. They were from the Sander studio, what was important was what they were showing.”
Gerd first exhibited the images in 1995. “No one asked me how did my grandfather get into a Nazi prison? It’s what he was saying with his work; people don’t think. They see a name on something and assume it’s true. His work wasn’t about photography, that was just the means to express his ideas.”
Artist Rooms: August Sander runs Feb 12 to July 10 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh (national galleries.org 0131-624 6200)