Face to face
Germany in the early 20th century was no place of repose. The country buckled under the strain of one World War and hurtled toward another. As writer John von Hartz put it, “Germany simmered in those days with conflicting passions, a land that alternated between dreams and nightmares, hope and decadence.”
Depression gripped this society as it did many across the globe, but in Germany it was exacerbated by the high cost of war reparations. Von Hartz continues: “The heady air of nascent political freedom slowly grew heavy with the yearnings of a restless population for a return to the security of absolutism.”
It was against this backdrop that photographer August Sander (1876 - 1964) pursued his work. A successful commercial photographer in the country of his birth, Sander set out around 1910 to realize a vision that would occupy him for the rest of his life: cataloging his countrymen in a great collection of portraits under the title “Man of the 20th Century.” The project was never completed—and how could it be?—but in 1929, Sander collected 60 of his works in a preview of the undertaking, which are now on view at the Nevada Museum of Art. The book, from which this exhibition takes its name, was titled Face of Our Time, and stands today as the artist’s signature accomplishment.
Sander’s portraits are simple and direct. Subjects in the photographer’s studio sit or stand against a blank wall. If elsewhere, the environment is never permitted to distract from the individual. All but a few face the camera head on. The artist’s straightforwardness anticipates the work of someone like Richard Avedon, photographing, for example, C.I.A. Director George Bush in 1976. But where Avedon sought celebrity, Sander sought anonymity. His subjects are listed by their vocations. If names are indicated at all they are reduced to lettered abbreviations. The individual Sander seeks is unique in his manner and his features, but he is also someone you may know, untethered to a specific place and time.
This particular cataloging fortunately evades the ceding of individuality found in compilations like yearbook photos and Facebook profiles. Sander’s approach is not so rigidly standardized as to even things out into a detached blandness. We can see clearly the defiance of “Working Students” (1926), the pride of a “Pastrycook” (1928), the disillusionment of “Revolutionaries” (1929), and the resignation of the “Unemployed” (1928). As a 1929 advertisement for Face of Our Time notes, Sander approached his work not “from an academic standpoint, nor with scientific aids. … He approached his task as a photographer from his own immediate observations of human nature and human appearances, of the human environment, and with an infallible instinct for what is genuine and essential.”
Given his nation’s tumultuous politics, one might expect Sander to have been a witness to history on the grandest scale, documenting the shifting emotions of an entire people, the bark of ascendant nationalism, and the cataclysm of war. But what one finds in these photographs is much more humble.
Grand as his undertaking was, Sander’s interest was in ordinary man. His subjects are unique but well-known actors in the routine of everyday. They are our fathers and sisters, our uncles, cousins, grandmothers. While a few made the world stop and start, these individuals cleaned and gleaned and built and baked and jailed and jabbed and delivered mail. Through all the turmoil, Sander’s subjects were the people who went about their lives, their experiences etched into their faces, and ultimately made the thing we call the 20th century possible in the first place.