August Sander. Masterpieces and Discoveries

By Jan Baetens


Die Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne; SABAM, Bruxelles, 2015

Curated at FOMU (Fotomuseum Antwerpen, 23 Oct. 2015-14 Feb. 2016) by Cultural Studies alumna Rein Deslé, August Sander. Masterpieces and Discoveries is a must-see exhibition that completely reshapes our idea of the author of People of the 20th Century, the famous portrait album that aimed at giving an overview of the human diversity of contemporary life in the Weimar Republic (it was this diversity, as well as the sharply marked social stratification of the portrayed people, that made this work politically suspect for national-socialist eyes).

Although best known for his work as a portrait photographer and mainly considered a representative of the New Objectivity tendencies of the era, the work by Sander (1876-1974) is of a dizzying multiplicity: industrial publicity, landscape photography, botanical studies, among others. “Pure art” seems to be missing, but to label this as an absence would imply an anachronistic view of photography. The divide of “applied” and “pure” photography, which certainly existed since the 19th Century (not always to the benefit of art, by the way, as demonstrated by the historical error of pictorialist photography), was not always present to the mind of many photographers, who did not experience their commissioned work as something they had to do to make a living and, if possible, to enable them to focus in their spare time on more interesting forms of photography. The dichotomy was not between art and commerce, but between well-made, relevant, attractive and thus meaningful photography and the rest.

Sander is a superlative example of such a practice and such an authorship (and it is necessary to read this term in the strong sense of “auteur”, i.e. of a conscious and ambitious individual trying to express a worldview through the specific use of a given medium), whose pictures are a perpetual source of inspiration for both his peers and his audience. In that sense, he is an example for today’s artists, who have to cope with a new cultural and economic situation in which the gap between art and commerce, so typical of the second half of the 20th Century, has come under strong pressure. As the Sander example demonstrates, the future of art should not be looked for in “more art and less commerce” but in the supersession of this divide.


Exhibition page:

Photo gallery at the GETTY Musem: