People of the Twentieth Century

January 5, 2008

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The Art Gallery of New South Wales is currently showing a large retrospective exhibition of the work of Sidney Nolan, whose long career encompassed many styles and techniques and produced a great deal more than his best-known Ned Kelly painting. The exhibition does not disappoint, but for me it was overshadowed by another smaller, less well-publicised exhibition – that of German photographer August Sander on loan from the J Paul Getty Museum, entitled Extraordinary Images of Ordinary People.

August Sander was one of a number of photographers in the early 20th century who used the camera to record the diversity of human life. As he wrote “We know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled,”

For about 25 years, Sander photographed the people living in and around the area of Cologne where he lived. His aim was to document the physiognomy and body-language of all walks of life, in a monumental series entitled – People of the Twentieth Century. From 1909 until 1934 when the Nazis banned his portraits and he moved to taking architectural and nature pictures, he took many thousands of photographs of farmers, workers, officials and families. The genius of Sander was his ability to allow his subjects to speak for themselves. His photograph of a man in Nazi uniform can sit side by side with a portrait of a Socialist leader Paul Frölich with little indication of Sander’s own political view.

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Sanders photographs were published in various books including Face of Our Time and his work appeared in The Family of Man.

Although the Nazis and later a fire destroyed many of his negatives and photographic plates, many thousands of his pictures survive. The major collection of his work can be found at the August Sander Archiv in the Photographische Sammlung/SK Stiftung, Cologne.

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One Response to “People of the Twentieth Century”


  1. […] summer holidays it must be time for photographic exhibitions. This time last year I wrote about an exhibition of photographs of August Sander at the Gallery of New South Wales. This year it is an exhibition of photographs by celebrated […]


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