The ancient Greek philosopher Plato famously theorized that society is made up of three kinds of people: producers, warriors, and rulers. Two thousand years later, in his book People of the Twentieth Century, German photographer August Sander (1876–1964) laid out his own hierarchical classification system for society, consisting of the following segments: “The Farmer,” “The Skilled Tradesman,” “The Woman,” “Classes and Professions,” “The Artist,” “The City,” and “The Last People” (the homeless, disabled, and otherwise down-and-out). Sander conceived of his model, which comprises mutually dependent social groups, as “cyclic.” He photographed people who represented each cycle, creating a comprehensive catalogue of human types in the Weimar Republic. These cycles have featured in a series of exhibitions at Feroz Galerie in Bonn, Germany, and now portraits of “The Last People”—the final cycle—are on view.
In one of these black-and-white, silver gelatin prints, The Foster Mother (ca. 1930), a band of orphans surround a nun, clutching her arms. Many of the children’s faces are contorted—eyes closed, brows furrowed, lips pursed. One girl, second from the left, appears to be crying; a boy on the far right holds a broom, giving us a glimpse into what the rest of his day will hold. In Blind Girls (ca. 1930), one young lady with a crooked smile faces the camera. Her shirt is stained, her eyes blank and dark. A friend, looking down, holds on to her for balance. Two photos, each called Matter (1925 and ca. 1930), feature close-up images of bed-ridden elderly subjects who seem either dying or dead.
In these works, Sander merges two stylistic strands that run through the history of modern photography. The first is documentary—a candid, non-interventionist effort to capture the world as it really is, perhaps even with the goal of social change. (Think Walker Evans or Jacob A. Riis.) The second is staged; the artist composes his tableau. (Think Marcel Duchamp, or, much later, Cindy Sherman.) Sander once wrote, “Nothing is more hateful to me than photography sugar-coated with gimmicks, poses and false effects. Let me speak the truth in all honesty about our age.” But in order to do so, he selects his subjects deliberately, and controls their environments so that their marginal cycle, and the sober reality of their lives, can be seen clearly.