Scot Schuman of The Sartorialist blog is noted today for singling out extraordinary men and women on the street with the aim of showing off their fashion creativity. Almost a century ago, someone else was doing something similar, although he took pictures of men on the streets, soldiers on rural foot paths and children on farm roads, all in order to document a whole generation on the photographic medium. His name is August Sander and he is widely acknowledged as one of Germany's finest portrait photographers of the early 20th century.
August Sander lived when mobile photography was still in its infancy. He started as a photographer's assistant at the turn of the 20th century and soon learned enough to set up his own studio first in Linz, Austria then in Cologne, Germany.
His greatest contribution was his collection of portraits of the people living in and around Germany at that time. It was to be called the People of the Twentieth Century and he conceived of this idea around the 1920s, although he was only able to publish a fraction of his work from this catalogue during his lifetime (fortunately, a recent publication of the same name was recently made available to the public).
Unlike The Sartorialist however, Sander's work did not just concentrate on the fashion of the time. Rather, he sought to record the characteristics that were universal among all people, across different professions and classes.
He developed a system of cataloguing his photographs by dividing them into seven groups, namely: the Farmer, the Skilled Tradesman, the Woman, Classes and Professions, the Artists, the City, and the Marginal People.
In hindsight, Sander's work in cataloguing the different peoples of Germany is invaluable as it would have provided modern readers crucial information pertaining to that time. The fact that he included the elderly, the homeless and minority groups did not sit well with the Nazis.
In 1929, his book entitled the Face of Our Time was banned because it not only showed marginalized individuals, it indicated that they were on equal footing with the Aryan people by their presentation alone. Many of his photographic plates were also destroyed many years later as a consequence.
By the middle of the 1940s, Sanders catalogue included over 40,000 photographs. Just like Irving Penn's Small Trades project, Sanders work provides a beautiful and somewhat romantic view into the ordinary lives of the rich and poor, the working class and the privileged. The fact that he didn't overlook the overly young or old gives the collection a special distinction over any other.
Indeed, his typologies cover almost all classes and professions of the early half of the last century, enabling readers an almost complete document of life in Germany at the time.
There are numerous publications on August Sander's works. August Sander: Face Our Time is a good start and makes for a nice pocketbook. August Sander: Seeing, Observing, Thinking, One Hundred Masterprints collects many of his prints as the name suggests. If you want the entire collection, spring for the seven-volume August Sander: People of the 20th Century.