A Famous World Photographer in Istanbul:

August Sander’s ‘People of the 20th Century’ Exhibition

* Arredamento Decoration Magazine, Boyut Publishing Group, Istanbul, April 1995, Issue: 69, Pg. 123 – 124

The August Sander (1876-1964) exhibition, which was held as part of the framework of the 112. Anniversary of the foundation of Mimar Sinan University with the contributions of the Istanbul German Cultural Center, on March 31, 1995 at the Mimar Sinan Hall, from the chronological point of view, can be considered as catalyst for our environment lacking production, maintaining unfruitful conflicts over the past decade.

The most distinguishing feature of 1920s – 1940s is that the First World War had ended and the Second World War had begun. As an inevitable consequence of the economic, social and cultural collapse experienced in these two decades, some photographers, in a moralistic perspective, went ahead towards the issues where heavy social truths are expressed. Others concentrated on working in a realistic and analytical way, in accordance with the definition of a scientist. The portrait photographs of August Sander, starting in 1911 and pursued until 1952, the focal point of which was constituted by people living in different social strata during the period between the two world wars, far from being mere nostalgic memories, are indicators of impartiality in terms of science, according to the claims of topological sciences that emerged in the 19th century, as Susan Sontag laid emphasis on in her book “Über Fotografie (1978)”.

August Sander is among the prominent figures in the Pre-World War II period German photograph école, often cited in the process of the development of the photograph art and history. At the age of only 16, he acquired a 13X18 cm camera with an Aplanat lens ¹ on it. In a place, similar to a woodshed where he lives, young Sander sets up his first dark room and portrait studio. His models were people who knew him very well in the village where he lived. The first work he created in the 1890s-disappeared due to negligence and inexperience. In 1911, in Cologne, August Sander begins his project to create a photographic catalog of German people. In 1927, at the Cologne Art Gallery, he displayed about 60 portraits of the People of the 20th Century project that we view with its expanded framework today, under the same name. Within the two years (1929) following the exhibition, his first book consisting of 60 portraits wherein people and the time in which they live are presented in a simple reality, including a preface by Alfred Döblin is published under the title of “Antlitz der Zeit – Face of Our Time”. August Sander, whose works were the focus of interest of sociologists, art historians and writers such as Walter Benjamin, Golo Mann and Alfred Döblin, was accepted into the “Family of Man” exhibition held at the New York Museum of Modern Art, directed by Edward Steichen, in 1954, and thus has put his mark on history pages.
¹ Aplanat Lens – The camera lens system is symmetrically configured. Is usually the name given to the lenses comprising four lens elements.

August Sander did not photograph the people in his portraits just for the show; on the contrary, he wanted to emphasize the fact that photography reveals human faces as social masks by presenting sections of the social structure existing back then in German society. For Sander, everyone whose photographical images are captured is like a display of a particular class, trade, or profession.

In the majority of August Sander’s photographs the portrait looks directly at the camera. Despite the fact that facing the camera in the normal rhetoric of the photographic portrait symbolizes sedateness, sincerity, and the exposure of the essence of the subject, the glance in Sander’s photographic portraits is not the sincere glance baring everything. However, when comparing Sander’s approach to character portraits, to the work of Diane Arbus, it is observed that his look is not an audacious look. Sander’s look does not bother the viewer it does not judge the people in the portraits. As Susan Sontag also stated in her aforementioned book, “Sander was not looking for secrets; he was observing the typical…” Sander can be considered to aim to shed light on art history, on one hand, and on anthropology and communication sciences, on the other hand by atomizing the social order he lived in, into an indefinite number of social types based on this thought.

Another important point that strikes the work of August Sander is: Sander’s perspective on social reality is unusually conscientiously broad, although the subjects of documentary photographic works within the de facto framework are often composed of views of the poor and unfamiliar or of celebrities.

Sander included peasants, workers, students, scientists, doctors, industrialists, soldiers, servants and society ladies, artists, writers, musicians, architects, the disabled and the elderly to the subjects he divided into three main categories. In his project, People of the 20th Century, he realized within such a wide social spectrum, Sander has succeeded in easily adjusting his style by taking into account the social rank of the portrait he was photographing.

The most important objective of Sander’s People of the 20th Century, in my opinion -as also mentioned in the press release– aside from its artistic value, is that it reminds today’s people that document quality photo-graphic images of documentary photography, open to many misconceptions today, should be documents that can be means of mediation for science in the research and understanding of social data.

In this context, it seems that documentary photography in our country that has not been able to create mainstream celebrities, people such as Atget, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Stieglitz, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier Bresson, Werner Bischof, Eugene Smith, Koudelka and August Sander, has lots to learn from the People of the 20th Century exhibition…

March 1995

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