Sander's 'majestically impartial' portrait of German society

Long before the invention of printing there were illustrated manuscripts purporting to depict the world's plants and animals. By 1590 a book purporting to represent all of the world's people, in the costumes of their countries and occupations, had been published in Venice. Later, the development of photography made available a new technical means toward a long-established end.

Among photographers who took on this challenge, August Sander (1876-1964) stands preeminent. And The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has just opened the largest exhibition of Sander's portraits ever held in the United States, with more than 200 vintage prints, largely from the Sander archive in Cologne, Germany.

Beginning as a studio photographer before World War I, Sander expanded his business by going door to door, photographing farm families in their homes. After 1918, he realized that his archive could be considered a portrait of the German nation, and set out to fill it in with photographs of city workers, artists, musicians, soldiers, industrialists, the old, the ill, even the dead.

Majestically impartial, he photographed Nazis with swastika armbands and Jews ready to flee persecution. Although he envisioned himself as an objective eye, recording humanity as it presented itself, his portraits were far more revealing than he may have understood them to be. They served to inspire such American photographers as Walker Evans and Diane Arbus to combine the appearance of objectivity with striking emotional expressiveness.

Sander's portraits hardly confirmed the Nazis' fabricated image of German racial purity, and after their rise to power they destroyed all available copies of "Face of Our Time," a selection of prints Sander published in 1929. Sander spent much of the Nazi era in rural seclusion, photographing landscapes.

Continuing through Feb. 23, 2003, the SFMoMA exhibit honors one of the greatest and most emulated of all photographers. His "People of the Twentieth Century" remained uncompleted, but its thousands of negatives and hundreds of finished prints are a monument to the ideal of creating a portrait of human society from top to bottom.

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