• August Sander
  • 1928

There is a certain formulaic approach to August Sander’s photography. But that was his aim. By presenting doctors, farmers, chefs and beggars all with the same stark directness, the German-born Sander made everyone the everyman. He set out to show that there is much to learn from all layers of society, noting, “We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there.” Sander’s most celebrated portrait, of a bricklayer in Cologne, Germany, embodies that insight. For while the laborer’s work entails toil and sweat, he maintains a proud bearing. The classical framing, with the lines of the bricks evoking the lines of the bricklayer’s vest, reinforces the dignity of the subject. Which was no small thing for a nation still reeling from the humiliation of World War I. Sander gathered Bricklayer and his other portraits in the monumental People of the 20th Century, the first body of work to document a culture through photography. Sander’s photographs celebrate the importance of the individual, elevating portraiture of ordinary people to art.

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