August Sander (1876- 1964) was born in Herdorf, the son of a carpenter working in the mining industry. While working at a local mine, Sander first learned about photography by assisting a photographer who was working for a mining company. With financial support from his uncle, he bought photographic equipment and set up his own darkroom. He spent his military service (1897–99) as a photographer’s assistant and the next years wandering across Germany. In 1901, he started working for a photo studio in Linz, Austria, eventually becoming a partner and then its sole proprietor. He left Linz at the end of 1909 and set up a new studio in Cologne.
In the early 1920s, Sander joined the “Group of Progressive Artists” in Cologne and began plans to document contemporary society in a portrait series. In 1927, Sander and writer Ludwig Mathar travelled through Sardinia for three months, where Sander took around 500 photographs.
Sander’s first book, Faces of our Times, was published in 1929. It contains a selection of 60 portraits from his series People of the 20th Century. Under the Nazi regime, his work and personal life were greatly constrained. His son Erich, who was a member of the left wing Socialist Workers’ Party (SAP), was arrested in 1934 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, where he died in 1944, shortly before the end of his sentence.
Sander’s book Face of our Time was seized in 1936 and the photographic plates destroyed. Around 1942, during World War II, he left Cologne and moved to a rural area, allowing him to save most of his remaining negatives. His studio was destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid.
Sander died in Cologne. His work includes landscape, nature, architecture, and street photography, but he is best known for his portraits, as exemplified by his series, People of the 20th Century. In this series, he aims to show a cross-section of society during the Weimar Republic. The series is divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City, and The Last People (homeless persons, veterans, etc.). By 1945, Sander’s archive included over 40,000 images.
In 2002, the August Sander Archive, scholar Susanne Lange and the grandson Gerd Sander published a seven-volume collection comprising some 619 of Sander’s photographs (August Sander: People of the 20th Century, Harry N. Abrams).