by Julian Sander
What an exciting, interesting and labor intensive year it has been! In the fall of last year I made a decision to do a series of exhibitions in my gallery that would show the complete People of the 20th Century for the first time ever in Europe. Indeed this was also to be only the second time this important project would be shown to date. In 2012 I was afforded the opportunity and support to show this project at the Sao Paulo Biennale with the endoursment of Peter Galassi and the support of Luis Perez-Orama.
It was a labour of love and respect considering and re-considering how to present such a momoth group of photographs without numbing the eyes and the minds of the viewers. It was during this phase that I began to appreciate the deeper meaning of what August Sander had actually created.
You see, I came to understand that Sander not only created a documentation of a single countrys folk during a specific period. What People of the 20th Century depicts is something far grander, and far more personal.
In every photograph taken we see the type, the class and the role of the portrayed within the social heirerarchy, but we also see the soul of the person. It was Sander’s specific gift that he was able to remove himself from the photograph to allow the sitter to present themselves as they undertstood themselves to be. This is not always to the sitters benefit, but it is true. This is what many intellectuals in the early 20th century understood, that these photographs are true. Of course we know this, as it is the foundation of Sander’s fame.
This was the understanding I came to the curation process with. Let me now tell you what I learned during that process which started in 2011 and continues to this day. Please bear with me as I take a slight excurtion into a very different world to help explain a point. I will bring the conversation back here, I promise.
In the world of computer programming we use a thing called a Class. A Class is not an active part of any program, but rather a way of defining things that are to be active. As a case in point we could examine a Container Class which would define a thing that can contain something. And by definition we could make a child of this Class (called a Sub Class) which could be a Coffee Mug. So the Coffee Mug would have all of the characteristics of the Container Class because it is of that Class by the fact that it inherits from the Container Class. Another example could be:
And yet another example of this would be:
As I worked with August Sander’s photographs I began to see Class Characteristics in his work. The longer I looked at the whole of this project the more clearly I saw the traits that help define us as human beings and less the traits that define us as Germans from the Weimar Republic. This was a revelation to me as, by direct association, I was able to see aspects of all other peoples everywhere inside this one definitive body of work. It is as though August Sander photographed the Classes of Mankind, not just Germany.
I saw that the core nature of the people depicted was rendered in these photographs. I was looking an Mankind, not at not Germans of the 20th Century, but rather People of the 20th Century. This was an epiphany as it showed me that Sander’s work was far more developed than most assume to be true.
I was offered an opportunity to test this knowledge. It came in the form of a gallery visit by Jiang Jian, a Chinese photographer who is called the “August Sander of China.” During his visit, I laid the photographs of Jiang together on the table with those of my great grandfather. This was more to prove that it would not work. I wanted to validate that Sander’s work was above and beyond. I was, it is, but not in the manner we would think. You see, Sander’s work harmonized with Jiang’s works in exactly the way I had least suspected. There was no competition in my eyes. What I saw was a vision of humanity shown in both bodies of work. I later discovered that their process of preparing for a portrait were the same. Both Jiang and Sander spent time getting to know the people they photographed. Both have a deep respect for the humanity of their sitters. Both photographed the soul of their sitters with great delicacy. The result was that I saw more commonalities in the people photographed then I saw differences. Both projects showed the souls of the sitters, and by doing so further showed that societies have common ground, a Super Class if you will. August often spoke of the fact that the world would one day understand what he had done. I think he understood this fact.
In our embrace of the arts we are more challenged by our own limitation than we are by those of the artists whose work we gravitate to. August Sander is no exception. Over the years we have seen technology develop to a point that it is almost impossible to create a “bad” photograph. Exposure, light sensitivity, motion compensation and a seemingly endless stream of “film” have not more enabled any photographer to create images of timeless quality. If anything, the technology has proven to us that it is not a matter of the camera. Time has also shown us that greatness in the arts is not a matter of formalism either. The mastery of any of these aspects of the photographic (artistic) process are just stepping stones to the spiritual level of photography. In the end the truth lies in the eye of the photographer and his ability to capture the soul of what he photographs.
On a more practical note I also would like to shed some light on the issue of which negatives were printed in which editions by which people. This is not to say that we are ready with a “Catalogue Raisonné.” However I would like to shed some light on how the 3 generations of photographers before me worked. I will focus on the physical prints in this conversation and bypass the discussion on artistic merit for the sake of brevity.
The story begins, of course, with August Sander himself. August Sander was a commercial photographer who was proud of the fact that he was a photographer, not an artist. I think his friends understood his position to be laced with a bit of irony, but that is a story unto itself. August made prints for his clients which were mounted considering the wishes of the client. He also created prints for use in architecture and shows. He made prints for the press which were sometimes retouched for the sake of reproduction.
The greatest effort and most detail went into his Mappenabzüge (ger. Portfolio Prints). These are the prints that he spent the most time and focus on. He saw these prints as a part of his artistic work. As such he did not print very many of them. Accordingly they are both rare and expensive. On the topic of editions it is important to remember that the idea of editioned photographic prints is a product of the photography market of the 1970’s. During August Sander’s lifetime he never defined editions. Often he made 3 Mappenabzüge, although this was mostly before the death of his son Erich in 1944. The theory goes that August made 1 Portfolio print of his favorite images for each of his children, of which there were 3 (not counting Helmut Sander who passed away shortly after his birth).
The Mappenabzüge are also the basis on which all the later prints were made. Contrary to the current understanding making a print in a darkroom at that time had so many influencing factors that each print must be understood as a unique print. Paper quality, temperature and quality chemicals, light source, enlarger, all of these aspects influenced the final print. When we factor in the 2 World Wars and the economic hardships and material rarity that these brought with them it is clear that it was almost impossible to recreate exactly the same print twice.
Clear is that August Sander never allowed a print to bear his name if it did not meet his asthetic criteria. This was his duty as the master photographer.
My grandfather Gunther was the next generation to work with the photographic oevre of August Sander. Gunther said in a letter that he had sacrificed the pursuit of his own work in order to work on the photographs taken by his father. Gunther was August Sander’s right hand in many situations during his professional work. He learned his trade from August. After WWII Gunther started a very successful commercial photo studio called Sander Photo (now Sander Digital Pictures) in Cologne which exists to this day.
Gunther printed August Sander’s negatives for various purposes. He also worked together with Lothar Shirmer on the first version of People of the 20th Century including making prints from the book to help with publicity and to generate sales. Gunther, in his later years, also worked together with my father Gerd on the printing of the negatives. Gunther, like August, did not do editions. He also did not keep records of which prints he made. It is difficult to say how many he made because of this.
Gunther made many press prints. These prints were made for the reproduction systems of the magazines of the time, before digital photography. As such these were high gloss high contrast prints. They show up sometimes on the auction market but are not really very interesting as they were never made for exhibition. This has to do with both the resolution of the grey tones as well as their chemical stability.
In 1984 Gunther transferred ownership of the complete works and negatives of August Sander to my father. After Gunther passed away in 1987 my father took possession of most of the prints and negatives as well as most of the furnishings and books. Unfortunately some got “lost” in the process of my father taking posesion of them from Gunther’s second wife. These prints and objects show up every then and now in the market.
My father Gerd Sander is the first in our family to create a structured edition of August Sander prints. His work on the August Sander Archive which he founded in the mid 1980’s is the foundation on which the current August Sander Archive continues to work. As part of the research on August’s work Gerd re-evaluated the project People of the 20th Century as well as the other projects August had planned to do, by going back to the negatives. By reviewing the annotations on the glass plates and cross referencing them with letters, notes and historical facts a clearer picture of People of the 20th Century evolved. The culmination of this process was the selection of the 619 images that are now People of the 20th Century.
Together with Gerhard Steidl the new 7 volume set of People of the 20th Century was printed and then published by Shirmer/Mosel, Harry N. Abrams and Éditions de la Martinière in 2001. This 7 volume set of books is the backbone of the editions that my father, with the help of his long time friend and co-worker Jean-Luc Differdange, printed. Jean-Luc started working with my father in the late 1980’s when my father began working on this mammoth body of work. Jean-Luc continued to work with my father after he sold the August Sander Archive to the SK-Stiftung Kultur. He is the reason why the modern edition-ed prints are both technically perfect and beautifully balanced in their tones and quality, across the entire oevre. Jean-Luc Differdnge left the Sk-Stiftung Kultur in Cologne and now works for the Feroz Galerie as head restorator.
My father’s editions are relatively simple to understand.
Edition 90 – is an edition of 12 prints per negative for a period of no more than 10 years. Each print is sold individually.
MD20 Sets – is an edition of 7 which contains all 619 images in People of the 20th Century. These are sold as complete sets.
Antliz der Zeit – is an edition of 30+5 HP and 1 AP made in 1989 in honor of the 150th birthday of photography.
Edition 5060 – is an edition of 25 negatives printed in a large size (~ 50 x 60 cm). The negatives were printed 12 or 18 times depending on the image.
In 1993 (contract was signed on the 25.11.1992 with effect 1.1.1993) Gerd Sander sold the August Sander Archive to the SK-Stiftung Kultur in Cologne. As compensation for his continued research and curatorial work he retained the right to produce prints until recently for the work he continued to do until he was asked to leave the August Sander Archive in 2010 by its director. Since then my father and I have continued to work on the research and presentation on the work of August Sander together.
To formalize our work my father and I have founded the August Sander Stiftung (ASSt) in Bonn. The focus of the ASSt is on the artistic and spiritual work of August Sander. The ASSt is meant to be a place for artists, curators and historians as well as students to work with the photographs of August Sander as well as the artists in his circle of friends. Franz Wilhelm Seiwert, Heinrich Hoerle, Franz Maria Jansen, Gottfried Brockmann are just a few of his contemporaries who’s works will find their home in the ASSt.
I guess at this point I should say a few words about my intentions as the fourth generation of photographers and dealers who continue working with the photographs of August Sander. I have been deeply influenced by the work of August Sander, but not so much through his photographs directly. The influence is rooted more in the deep respect that August had for his fellow people.
This influenced how he lived and worked. Specifically that influence has remained and continues into my generation and beyond. As such I am of course interested in furthering the work of August Sander. I am more interested in working with the same intention as August. That cannot be limited to following a historical toolkit of rules which binds me to a single representation or view. I see this work as a responsibility that challenges me to be free from exactly those bounds. I have found that great art cannot break. Knowing this I will continue to look for great art, and to challenge what I find and see if it remains great for the histories. August Sander has proven it is possible. I know there is more out there, and so I keep looking.