August Sander sits within the pantheon of early-to-mid 20th-century photographers. He is best remembered for an epic portfolio of photographs—Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century) (1892-1952)—that outraged the Nazis and later garnered enthusiastic critical attention. Among the most notable projects in the history of photography, it will soon enter the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its entirety.
According to Quentin Bajac, chief curator of photography at MoMA, “In the history of photography there are few works that rival August Sander’s People of the 20th Century in scope or influence.” This masterful project consists of 619 individual portraits, which together were meant to classify German society during the tumultuous periods of WWI and WWII. Using a large-format camera and glass-plate negatives, Sander photographed residents of the German countryside and cities, dividing his encyclopedic cache of images into seven categories: “The Farmer” (a figure whom the artist considered to be the foundation of humanity); “The Skilled Tradesman;” “The Woman;” “Classes and Professions;” “The Artists,” “The City;” and “The Last People” (images of the elderly, infirm, and dying).
But these exquisitely composed, intimate photographs—and with them, Sander’s influence—might not have survived were it not for his descendants. MoMA acquired People of the Twentieth Century from Sander’s great-grandson, Julian Sander, who runs Galerie Julian Sander (formerly known as Feroz Galerie) in Bonn, Germany. Gerd Sander, another grandson and an expert on the artist’s work, collaborated with Jean-Luc Differdange—who has worked for the estate in varying capacities over the last quarter-century—to print the portfolio’s rich gelatin silver photographs from the artist’s original negatives.
While small groupings of these prints have been displayed around the world, People of the Twentieth Century has only been shown in its entirety once before—in 2012 at the São Paulo Biennial. Perhaps, with its entry into MoMA’s collection, that may change. “It is exhilarating to bring it into the collection to contextualize [the many photographers] who cite his achievement as essential to the development of their own,” says Bajac. With the possibility of its comprehensive display, many more photographers may have access to the vision of one of the medium’s greatest masters.