A New Look at August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’

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When August Sander conceived of the structure of his ambitious portrait series, “People of the Twentieth Century,” his goal was to document the German people in a way that rejected the era’s social divisions. Starting in the mid-1920s and through the rise of Nazism, he became keenly aware that the notion of cataloging a people sometimes took on different meanings.

He documented people from all classes and backgrounds in a similar manner, including those whom the Nazis did not consider Aryan. In 1929, he published “Face of Our Time,” a preview of his intended larger project, but the Nazi regime later confiscated the remaining books (eventually destroying the plates) and barred him from publishing in the future. His son Erich was jailed for anti-Nazi activities in 1934 and died in prison 10 years later.

Sander left his home in Cologne for the German countryside around 1942, and many of the negatives for his original project were destroyed in a fire after World War II. Still, “People of the Twentieth Century” has influenced countless photographers and other artists, from Walker Evans and Lisette Model to Diane Arbus and Tina Barney, said Sarah Meister, a curator in the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department.

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