August Sander, Familie Eichelhardt, c. 1913

In a lifelong project entitled People of the 20th Century, photographer August Sander sought to systematically and comprehensively document contemporary German society through photography. His vast oeuvre illustrates the diverse and rapidly changing social landscape in the years preceding, and of, the Weimar Republic.

People of the 20th Century was composed of over 500 images, divided into seven groups and over 45 portfolios according to the living environments, professions and estates of his subjects, with titles including ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘The Artists’ and ‘The Last People’. Sander sensitively captured a broad spectrum of different groups of people, and photographed all of his subjects using the same objective method. They are depicted predominantly against a neutral background, in natural, even light. Sander considered empathy towards his sitters to be critical to his working practice, and strove to incorporate this into his images. His subjects face the camera squarely without a particular expression, they do, however, reveal their individuality through subtleties in gesture, pose and clothing.

The present photograph is an early example of Sander successfully employing this style. It was taken in 1913 in Westerwald, and depicts a family of five, dressed in their Sunday best, stood proudly on their land. It is typical of Sander’s early works. His images of this period document the people of rural Germany, including the Bergisches Land, the Saarland, the Lower Rhine, the Eifel and, above all, the Westerwald, near to his native Cologne, which he had visited regularly since 1911. He was known to tour the villages of these areas with his camera equipment, and the subjects of the resulting photographs were farmers who commissioned Sander to photograph their families, often for special occasions. Many photographs taken in these regions were assigned to the portfolio, ‘The Farmer’s Family’, the first group in Sander’s People of the 20th Century.

Sander’s methodical and objective approach to photography has served as inspiration for numerous modern and contemporary photographers including Bernd and Hilla Becher, Diane Arbus and Rineke Dijkstra. His body of work is undeniably one of the most important and influential to be undertaken in the twentieth century.

Sander’s vast and encyclopaedic project reached more than 40,000 images during his lifetime, though due to a fire at his studio in Cologne after the end of the Second World War, only 11,000 survived. It is now incredibly rare to find a true vintage print of an August Sander photograph.

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