Review – August Sander

Blacksmiths 1926, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964Fig. 1. Blacksmiths (1928)

Initial Thoughts:- I have uploaded all three photos before collecting my thoughts, and I must say that this photo surprises me a little bit when compared to the others, and to his photography as a whole. The surprise being that the focus is on the anvil rather than on the people. I have accessed Sanders photography on the Tate website, and his portraits are wonderful, and in the overwhelming majority of his photos it is the people who take centre stage (WordPress compresses photos and this has an effect on sharpness, however, with re-viewing the photo on the Tate website it is clear that the focus is beginning to drop off of the faces anyway.)

Two blacksmiths in working clothes, which are surprising clean for what can be hard, dirty, manual labour. Focal point is hammer and anvil? is this a representation of the rebuilding of Germany under Adolf Hitler? (I don’t know when Hitler was elected so I will check this later) Could it be a statement about strength? Oy maybe about the German work ethic? (As Henning Wehn would say “We Germans, we like a laugh, no honestly we really do, we really do, just like the Brits, the only difference is Germans laugh once the work is done” (Live at the Apollo (2015))

The man on the left looks stoic and proud and the guy to the right looks a little apprehensive. There has been a little staging so that the photograph could be made within the context of their work and behind the anvil, and the photo is posed. I believe the fire is to the rear left of the photo, although I cannot be sure. Neither of the men appear to be hot, and there is no smoke in the photo, which leads me to guess that the men have been photographed prior to work.

The photo when taken on its own does not fit the category of reportage or photo journalism. It has a feel of social documentary, especially when the symbolism of the anvil is taken into account.


National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture 1938, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964Fig. 2. National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture (1938)

Initial thoughts:- Formal, staged, posed photograph, of a man with significant status within the Nazi Government. A former soldier, wearing dress uniform showing his military decorations upon his chest. Is it significant that the swastika is at the forefront of the photo? I do not know. Maybe the symbol is on the other sleeve and I will have to look into that. If it is upon both sleeves then it is not a symbolic statement, however if it only appears upon the left then I would say it is. The man is viewed in profile rather than face on, and that makes this a very formal photo. His head is isolated from the background curtain, and this has been achieved by having a light source coming from the direction that the man is looking towards. The light brings out highlights throughout his face and this separates the tone of skin and the tone of the background curtain.

The emphasis and learning points for me here are in relation to lighting, not only of the features, but as a means of isolating the face from the background. The formailty and status is clear in this photo, and is emphasised when compared with the face on photo titled Non-commissioned Officer (1944), however when you then compare this with the photo below, which could be studio photography, then it does not appear that Sander is making a judgement about class or status, rather he represents what is.


Political Prisoner 1943, printed 1990 by August Sander 1876-1964Fig. 3. Political Prisoner (1943)

Initial thoughts:- This is a photo that I like because it tells me something. The title becomes a text anchor. It makes a statement about the man in the photo that is definite and leaves no space for interpretation. And yet the mans eyes ask questions of the viewer. He is making a direct challenge about our perception of him as a prisoner, daring us to judge, and question. He is also at ease as to why he is a political prisoner. I sense confidence and self-esteem. The lighting comes form the front and slightly to the left, and the man not having a top on creates the isolation of him from the background. What initially look like scars upon his chest, and potential signs of ill treatment, turn out to be stretch marks upon closer inspection.

The fact that he doesn’t have a top on is meant to take this mans dignity away, although this has not been engineered by Sander, and can be seen in other photos of political prisoners that he has taken. I suspect the attempt to reduce dignity is part of the Governments treatment of political prisoners. When this photo is looked at with an open mind it is clear that it has been taken in a very dignified fashion. I suspect that it cannot have been easy for even a German photographer to be take photos of political prisoners. Perhaps Sander was employed by the Government and this was meant to be a propaganda photo? Regardless of Sanders role, this is a sympathetic photo.

Reflections and Further Reading

Sander has an art at ensuring his subjects are photographed with dignity, and there does appear to be neutrality. The impression that I get is of a photographer that will endeavour to bring out the best from his subjects, and take their photos in the environment that they spend the majority of their time. When viewed as a collection they are, what I would describe as, social history photographs that aim to present facts without a bias towards status. He has made photos where a victim of persecution, political prisoner, policeman and architect appear to be studio shot, and others of a string quartet, bricklayer, painter, teacher, nun and SS Captain in the natural environment.

Sanders used a large format camera with long exposures, and this will explain why some of the people are not as sharp or as crisp as the environmental objects (Washton Long; 2013).

Pepper Stetler comments upon this In Photography the Whole Story “Face of Our Time presents a cross section of the German Nation organized according to occupational and social types…Its heterogenity is why the Nazis destroyed copies of both the book and the publisher’s printing blocks in 1936.” (Hacking, 2012:299)

His subjects are well-lit, and are often naturally framed against walls, windows, or the natural environment, and others appear to be studio portraits. In the majority of his photos the people, as subjects, stand out from the backgrounds, even when they can be quite cluttered.

In some of his photos there is an element of individuality shining through, and this is also apparent in some of the more formal photos such as Touring Player and Raoul Haussmann as Dancer.

Response to my questions in the text

Germany was under a coalition government led by Hermann Muller in 1928. (Wikimedia Foundation Inc, 2017)

German Officer dress uniforms had a red armband with the Swastika Motif, that was worn on the left arm only. The officer may have wanted to show the motif, but from reviewing Sanders photography I do not believe tha the had any symbolic agenda, and he took and presented his photo as a matter of factual representation.

Sander has been described as a “leftist” and therefore not politically neutral, and that he was a German who spent time photographing and associating with Jews whilst they were actively being persecuted (Washton Long; 2013).

The Economist Newspaper sates “Despite persecution by the Nazis (his son Erich, a committed Socialist, died in prison in 1944), Sander travelled little” (The Economist Newspaper; 2009)

I am left with one question. How was a man who is disliked and persecuted by the Nazi Governement allowed to photograph the German Political elite and armed services, and able to photograph Political prisoners and Jews?



Figure 1. Sander, A (1928) Blacksmiths [Photograph, Gelatin silver print on paper] At: (accessed on 05/10/2017)

Figure 2. Sander, A (1938) National Socialist, Head of Department of Culture [Photograph, Gelatin silver print on paper] At: (accessed on 05/10/2017)

Figure 3. Sander, A (1943) Political Prisoner [Photograph, Gelatin silver print on paper] At: (accessed on 05/10/2017)


Google Inc; 2017; Image search: German Officer dress uniform 1938; Online at (accessed on 05/10/2017)

Hacking, J; 2012; Photography the Whole Story; London; Thames & Hudson

Live at the Apollo (series 11, episode 5) (2015) Directed by Paul Wheeler [BBC TV comedy series], London, BBC Programmes, viewed via YouTube At:

Mulligan, T and Wooters, D; 2016; The George Eastman House Collection: A History of Photography from 1839 to the Present Day; Koln; Taschen GmbH

Sander, A; 1944; Non-Commissioned Officer; Online at (accessed on 05/10/2017)

The Economist Newspaper; 2009; The Photographs of August Sander: Twentieth-Century Man: A photographer who believed he was enabling self-portraits; Paris; The Economist Newspaper Limited 2017; Online at (accessed on 05/10/2017)

Washton Long, RC; 2013; August Sander’s Portraits of Persecuted Jews, Tate Papers, no.19; London; Tate; Online at (accessed 5 October 2017)

Wikimedia Foundation Inc; 2017; German Federal Election 1928; Online at,_1928 (accessed on 05/10/2017)

Also Viewed

All titled photographs that are discussed, but not shown in the text, can be viewed online at (accessed on 05/10/2017)

9 Replies to “Review – August Sander”

  1. Ditto what Catherine said!

    In fig 2 (the Nazi), that he doesn’t face the camera is interesting. I would suggest here is a man confidently believing in his own ideology, he doesn’t have to troubling himself engaging with the viewer. And I’d go further to suggest that Sander deliberately placed that swastika in a prominent position within the frame. …Or may be I’m putting a post war liberal consensus interpretation on to the image?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks David. Although I selected those three photos, I viewed around a hundred before writing my thoughts. In the context of his portfolio of photos I’m not sure that the symbol was as important to him as it feels from a modern perspective looking back upon that awful regime.

    And thankyou for the comment about his confidence. I hadn’t considered that during that time there was a lot of hostility and rage towards the Nazi regime from most of the rest of the world.


  3. I have found this critique and following conversation via the comments most informative. From the perspective of photography I am more and more drawn to images shot by experts with film and the sensitivity that comes through as a result.

    From the interpretive perspective I find the stance of the viewer to be endlessly fascinating, as doubtless we may all have particular points of reference. And hindsight is a wonderful thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. There is definitely a quality from these experts. I don’t necessarily prefer it to quality digital photography, but I’m certainly very pleased that Jayne put me onto Alec Soth and August Sander.

      I will make time to return to their photography.


  4. This review definitely is the most intriguing amongst the three that you have done Richard. I don’t know whether it’s because of your excellent and absolutely to the point analysis and observations or that the photographer’s style is somewhat soft and sympathetic which makes the viewer actually relate to the subject, especially the prisoner. I felt exactly the same as you when you say that it appears that the prisoner seems to be asking if we actually believe that he is one? You have done a great review on all three. Sander is my favourite. I can see that you really enjoyed doing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I am enjoying writing the critiques and I am aware I have a less than academic style, but it feels natural.
      However, I think Sander is the photographer that I feel more connected too (Soth a close second). I don’t know how many photographers I’ve reviewed since starting the course, but he is very unique.
      As you say there is a gentleness and empathy between him and his subjects, regardless of who they are.
      I like him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Your writing is truly commendable and inspirational. I feel like a kid writing reviews compared to your style of writing. Must learn from you. Thank you Richard for providing the inspiration and direction.

        Liked by 1 person

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