artist / participant

press release

Approximately 150 images by the pioneering German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) were on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from May 25, 2004, through September 19, 2004. The photographs were drawn from the artist's most famous project, People of the Twentieth Century (Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts), which was envisioned as a comprehensive visual record of the German populace.

One of the most ambitious undertakings in the history of photography, the project occupied Sander for some forty years, from the early 1920s until his death, during which he took portraits of hundreds of German citizens and then categorized them by social type and occupation—from farm laborers to circus performers to prosperous businessmen and aristocrats. Remarkable for their unflinching realism and deft analysis of character and lifestyle, Sander's individual images stand out as high points of photographic portraiture and collectively propose the idea of the archive as art.

"August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century. A Photographic Portrait of Germany" featured a representative selection from each of Sander's categories and included such now-iconic images as Pastrycook (1928), Young Farmers (1914), and Secretary at West German Radio in Cologne (1931).

Although the Nazis confiscated the first publication of Sander's work, and the majority of his negatives were later destroyed by fire, approximately 1,800 portrait negatives for People of the Twentieth Century survived, as well as Sander's notes and plans. Together with the existing vintage prints, they provided the basis for the reconstruction of Sander's ambitious project in book and exhibition form.

The exhibition was made possible by members of the Museum's Visiting Committee for the Department of Photographs.

It was organized by Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur, Cologne.

Philippe de Montebello, director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, commented: "Endowed with extraordinary observational powers and heroic determination, August Sander has left us with a compelling collective portrait of the German people during one of the most turbulent periods in their history. These powerful images, with their combination of unflattering objectivity and sympathy for the human condition, exerted a profound influence on later generations of photographers, among them the Americans Walker Evans and Diane Arbus."

More About the Artist and His Work The son of a carpenter, August Sander was born in 1876, in a farming and mining community east of Cologne. His introduction to photography came while working as a young apprentice in the mines, when a visiting photographer asked the boy to serve as his guide. Despite his provincial background, Sander became involved with many of the avant-garde artistic ideas of his day, among them the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a movement led by his friend, the painter Otto Dix, which advocated a return to realism and social commentary in art.

Around 1922, Sander conceived and embarked on a magnum opus to be called People of the Twentieth Century, intended, as he stated, to be "a physiognomic image of an age," and a catalogue of "all the characteristics of the universally human." His portrait images were grouped into seven categories, which, in and of themselves, reveal Sander's views of the German social order. Sander prefaced the project with a "Portfolio of Archetypes," which he then expanded to form the first group, the Farmer; six other categories followed: the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman; Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City; and, the last and perhaps most compelling category, the Last People, comprising the elderly, the deformed, and the dead.

Sander's inclusion of these and other marginal elements of German society—gypsies and the unemployed also figured in his work—incurred the disapproval of the National Socialist party. In 1936, the Nazis confiscated his first published version of the project, Face of Our Time (Antlitz der Zeit), and destroyed all the printing plates. Some years later Sander left Cologne and moved to the relative safety of the countryside, taking with him some 10,000 negatives. The remaining 25,000 to 30,000 negatives were destroyed by fire before he was able to transport them to the Westerwald. The project remained incomplete at his death in 1964.

Exhibition Organizers The exhibition was curated by Dr. Lange and Ms. Conrath-Scholl at Die Photographische Sammlung/ SK Stiftung Kultur in Cologne, in collaboration with Gerd Sander. At the Metropolitan Museum, the exhibition was organized by Lisa Hostetler, research associate, with Malcolm Daniel, curator in charge, both of the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs.

August Sander
People of the Twentieth Century
A Photographic Portrait of Germany
Kurator: Susanne Lange, Gabriele Conrath-Scholl, Gerd Sander, Lisa Hostetler, Malcolm Daniel