August Sander

Comparison between August Sander “’People of the 20th Century” and Zed Nelson’s “Goodbye to all that”.

Sander’s seven categories would have most likely reflected not just the social and political demography of Germany in 1920, but also Sander’s own view of the world. Since, as the MOMA information sheet says, he came from a rural background then it is not surprising that farming would feature strongly. To modern sensibilities his categorisations otherwise seem rather random; creating separate categories for “The Woman” and “The Last People” seem particularly outdated and offensive.

Despite the uncertainty in Weimar Germany during the 1920s, Wander’s categories show a marked confidence in the social structure in place at the time. He has faith that society will prevail, even so far as including National Socialism as a legitimate profession. Many of his photographs depict occupations that others might ignore as too indistinct; at first glance there seems little difference between the Customs Officer and the Railway Officials but Sander is interested enough to differentiate them. Irving Penn’s work ‘Small Trades’ is similar to Sander’s in the sense that he was documenting occupations that were fairly commonplace at the time. Penn concentrates on largely manual occupations, those generally associated with working class life, whereas Sander depicts all levels of society.

Sander (likewise Penn) specifically set out to document commonplace German society as it was at the time, but Zed Nelson is more concerned with disappearing trades, those that were common at one time but are fast disappearing. He photographs his subjects in a way that seems to deliberately echo Sander, so that they suggest times past and a belonging to another age. This deliberate echoing of Sander’s work has the effect of differentiating it from Sander. For Sander his settings and portraits were as much about the available technology as a particular artistic sensibility; apart from the desire for a consistent approach to lighting and background to provide the desired forensic investigation, much else was driven by the available technology. As much as possible Sander intended his photographs to reflect the truth as it was at the time. In contrast Nelson’s work is conceived much more as ’Art’; his use of B&W, choice of lighting, focus and print granularity, are all deliberately aimed at positioning this work in the past. They are less concerned with objective truth (certainly less than Sander) than they are with reflecting Nelson’s own position on his subjects.

SFMOMA | Press Room | Press Release: August Sander: People of the 20th Century (s.d.) At:

Morrison, B. (2011) ‘Goodbye to all that’ In: The Guardian 12/03/2011 At: (Accessed 21/05/2020).

Irving Penn: Small Trades (Getty Center Exhibitions) (s.d.) At: (Accessed 21/05/2020).

August Sander – People of the 20th Century (s.d.) At: (Accessed 21/05/2020).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s