In his own way August Sander, also used the close-up in the sense that, like Blossfeldt, he too put his subjects under a microscope of scrutiny. The objects of Sander’s relentlessly gaze were human beings currently living in Weimar Germany subjected to taxonomical investigation. Like Renger-Patzsch and Blossfeldt, Sander framed and centered his people, as carefully and as scientifically as a technician in a lab. With few exceptions, they were tracked down in their natural habitat, which is usually cropped out, and photographed impassively facing their interrogator. Face of our Time, an on-going self-imposed project was an extension of the nineteenth-century projects that established typologies of national types, organizing people in terms of class, trades, occupations, ethnicities. In the case of empires, such as France, racial classification also entered in, as nation states attempted to categorized their populations. The purpose of making such records could be benign, for modernization was rendering many of these regional “types” extinct under the pressures of defining the “nation” as a unified entity. Then there was a less benign purpose, which, from the late eighteenth century on, undesirable citizens, such as the chronically poor, the habitually criminal, or the clinically mad, were categorized or separated out so that they might be institutionalized. If there was a photographic precursor to Sander, it would be Eugène Atget in fin-de-siècle Paris. A researcher, who sought out and photographed the remaining elements of Old Paris, Atget rarely photographed people expect as incidental inclusions. However, with his anthropologist’s eye, Atget understood that les petits métiers or the small trades carried out by individuals were vanishing under the pressures of modernism. Before these occupations disappeared into the mists of history, Atget sought out the workers and photographed them for posterity. Sander’s project was less focused and more wide-ranging as he wandered with his camera, searching for faces and people who caught his eye as interesting.
Like Eugène Atget, August Sander’s method of collecting photographs was one of analysis—studying individual example while forming an ultimate whole. As Sander said, “I cannot show [my work] in a single photo, nor in two or three; after all, they could as well be snapshots. Photography is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse.” Smaller in scope that Mendolshon’s eighty-two pictures of New York, Face of our Time by August Sander presented sixty studies of a wide variety of types in his 1929 book, presumably a fraction of his collection, part of a larger project entitled, People of the Twentieth Century, which was not published in Germany until 1980. “Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age,” Sander said, and yet he remained rooted in the city of Cologne, occasionally venturing into the countryside of the iron regions of Westerwald where he grew up. For Sander, this small region was typical not just of Germany but of the twentieth-century. One might question the universality of these photographs but Sander found astonishing variety among such a small sample. Although he claimed to be “assisting a self-portrait,” there are sub-texts of class embedded in these studies. Those involved in trade or in manual labor are often defined in terms of their occupations and their identities dissolved into the uniforms and tools of their trades. Although the poses and postures, accompanied by the tools of their trades have been judged by historians to render the worker “heroic” or “iconic,” it is difficult to discern individuality or personality of the people themselves. The laborers, in other words, are signifiers of their trade, as with Atget’s métiers. On the other hand, within the same frontal frame, the middle class, especially artists, were allowed or had the privilege to fashion themselves, often posing with assertive drama, presenting themselves as assertive and distinct individuals. Certainly. these privileged Bohemians, in all their idiosyncrasies, are also distinct types but they either are granted to demand a greater freedom through their gestures and expressions to actualize themselves. Interestingly given the title, “our time,” Sander included representatives of the previous century, old people in their old fashioned out of date clothes, pictured as relics or survivors, doomed to live out their lives in a world gone strange to them
But what did this labor of categorization by August Sander mean to the culture? It is impossible to know with any finality if Sander had inherited the current belief that the face expressed not just class but also character but his title “Face of our time” demonstrated that he shared the nation obsession with Physiognomy. In fact, the photographer termed his enterprise as a “physiognomic image of an age,” with the aim of classifying “all the characteristics of the universally human.” Historically, the mug shot—the face removed from context. In fact, art historians have long argued that this so-called scientific study of faces was linked to New Objectivity in the sense that the era yearned for certitude and Sander’s approach, which he called “straight photography,” was, if nothing else, systematic. This “super-discipline” of physiognomy, supposedly a universal method of study, is played out in the project of August Sander, which assuredly mirrors if not mimics scientific photography. By framing each face and figure, each body clad in identifying clothing and by centering the subject frontally, submitting to the camera, Sander said that “Nothing seemed to me more appropriate than to project an image of our time with absolute fidelity to nature by means of photography.” Formally, each study is simple and compelling and clinically stringent in its unwavering formula, but one must look behind the formal design to see that Sander also sought the unique and distinctive and sometimes the downright strange and sinister. Few beautiful and attractive people appear, and, attracted towards to rare, finding the usual in details, Sander possessed the eye of a Diane Aubus. Catalogs of physiognomies were supposed to provide comfort in a time of change and uncertainty to the German people who yearned for stability, but Sander’s penchant for finding the uncanny in the ordinary upended the purpose of such studies, which was to subsume the individual into the collective. And this quality of difference is possibly the reason why the photographic plates for his proposed seven volume study of the German people was seized by the Nazis in 1936. Categorizing people by class or occupation sounds like a fascist project but the ostensible reason for the seizure of all copies of Face of Our Time and the photographic plates was the fact that the son of Sander had been a political prisoner since 1934. But the sheer variety of German people included by Sander, such as Jews and Gypsies, unnerved the Nazis, who also appropriated physiognomy to assert the superior Aryan hero who sprang from the land. The fact that these aliens, these transplants and wanderers, who settled on native German lands were found and presented on the same level under the idea of the “universal,” offended the Nazi rhetoric of superiority. Sander and his work were politically suppressed, delaying but not ending his project advertised in 1907 as his determination “…to retain all the characteristic features which circumstance, life and times have stamped upon the face. Thus, I can offer to produce expressive, characteristic likenesses that completely represent the nature of the subject.”