In his Small History of Photography (1931), Walter Benjamin wrote – in response to August Sander’s book Face of our Time (1929) – that the rapidly changing world made ‘the sharpening of physiognomic perception a vital necessity’.

This problematic idea – that the physical body can tell us something about a person’s inner world – is still part of our understanding of portrait photographs, no matter how aware we are now of the camera’s ability to deceive us. The attempt to classify people according to their appearance, demeanour or physiognomy, as Sander tried to do, may be difficult to grapple with today, but he believed in the sociological importance of photography as part of a modernising society – perhaps more than any other photographer in the 20th century.

His vast archive of people and landscapes reached more than 40,000 images during his lifetime though only about 11,000 survived (some 30,000 negatives were destroyed in an accidental fire at his studio in Cologne after the end of World War Two).

Sander’s conviction in the power of a photograph is apparent in an exhibition of 40 works by the celebrated German photographer at Hauser & Wirth’s 69th Street New York outpost. Among these are individual portraits in large format: such as Sportflieger (Aviator) (1920), Lackarbeiter (Varnisher) (1930), and group shots such as Boxer (1929), and The Farming Couple (1912), that assert important aspects of Sander’s style: subjects look directly at the camera, and are depicted in a straightforward, naturalistic setting, dressed in the typical clothes of their class or profession.

The pictures are printed larger than in Sander’s lifetime, a decision originally made by his son Gunther, who reproduced them on this scale for an exhibition in 1972. Their size emphasises another intrinsic part of Sander’s photography: detail.

Whether it’s a hand gesture, the glint of an eye, the crevice that makes a facial expression, or the fold of a fabric, seeing Sander supersize shows how he observed these little things as shaping a person’s identity. This adherence to ‘reality’ was a stark departure from trends in photography of the day – Sander was interested in observation, his lens a way to probe at his surroundings.

As John Berger would write, years after Benjamin’s reflections on Sander, in his essay The Suit and the Photograph, these details – how clothes sit on the body, the subjects’ postures and shape – incisively comment on class. Though there is an insistence on individuality in Sander’s portraits of people, he did seek to give a representational idea about each social strata.

His proximity to many of his subjects – he knew many of them personally, or spent time getting to know them and their way of life – allowed him to take this liberty with their identity. This artistic interpretation factored into his approach in his most important project –  People of the 20th Century (1927), socioeconomic portraits of a nation. Each image may have its own story to tell, but it’s the viewer that has to create that narrative, and confront the paradigms he presents.

The people in these pictures are no longer alive and the world they once inhabited has radically changed. The ambitious ‘truth’ in Sander’s images today is difficult: but it doesn’t detract from the startling humanity of the people he left behind in his photographs.

RELATED TOPICS: PHOTOGRAPHY, HAUSER & WIRTH, NEW YORK EXHIBITIONS