Exercise: B&W portraits as a documentary strategy


Read the information that accompanied August Sander’s exhibition People of the 20th Century at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Write a 200-word reflective commentary on Sander’s seven-category system. Briefly discuss the implications of his classification system within the socio-cultural context of the time. Make connections with contemporary practice such as that of Zed Nelson, if appropriate.



Sander’s classification system is a product of its time. It’s easy to see now the catch-all grouping of ‘Women’ as offensive and reductive, but this no doubt reflected the social expectations of the time and place. Similarly, one could get offended by the grouping of the elderly and disabled as ‘The Last’, as if this were a value judgement, but it’s possible that this was simply a poor translation from an accepted German phrase, or maybe even simply a descriptive title as Sander worked on this category last.

Bricklayer, 1928 – August Sander

What concerned me more was the fundamental classification approach of the project, a product of the detachment of the ‘New Objectivity’ school of European photography (Marien 2014: 262). I’m either being controversial or just pedantic but my main observation is that I wouldn’t call Sander’s work ‘portraiture’ in the strictest sense. That word implies “a shorthand description of a person” (Bate 2009: 67). Clarke goes further, with “character revelation is the essence of good portraiture” (Clarke 1997: 101).

Sander was not concerned with individuals but with archetypes – Sontag put it well in ‘Melancholy Objects’: “Sander was not looking for secrets, he was observing the typical.” (Sontag 1979: 59).

He worked ‘top-down’ to divide the population into categories and capture ‘specimens‘ of each grouping. There’s a framework of stratification in place, a focus on archetypes, defined by their differences to other archetypes. So Sander’s was a typology project first and foremost.

Nelson and Penn

Thomas Treborra (Cornish Fishermen) – Zed Nelson

By comparison, Zed Nelson and Irving Penn came at things a different way entirely. While the surface comparison to Sander holds, the intention and approach were quite different. Nelson and Penn worked ‘bottom-up’, identifying small and quite specific groups of society – largely centred around professions – and treating the individual portraits as just that.

Their subjects are examples not specimens – a subtle but important distinction. The people are named in the titles, a small but important aspect of personalisation that separates this from the Sander work.

So while I’d call Nelson and Penn portraitists, Sander is closer to the human equivalent of a butterfly collector.

Footnote: Sander revisited

Shortly after first writing this up I became aware of a recent project by the always-interesting Broomberg & Chanarin that takes Sander’s original typology project as one of the jumping-off points for a more 21st century art project.

From Spirit is a Bone, 2015 – Broomberg & Chanarin

Rather than actual photographs, Spirit is a Bone (2015) used 3D facial recognition software to capture Moscow citizens, presenting each face as a kind of a digital mask. Bloomberg & Chanarin acknowledged the influence of both Sander (they used his categories) and his contemporary Helmar Lerski (who did close-up facial portraits in comparison to Sander’s full-length shots).

The end result is a curious visual effect that simultaneously is and isn’t a portrait; the connection to the typological categorisation is lost as there are no visual cues beyond the facial surface, making these more identifiable as individual portraits than Sander’s work, even with the minimal information provided.


http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/asandersfmoma (accessed 29/04/2016)

http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2011/mar/12/goodbye-to-all-that-zed-nelson-photographs (accessed 29/04/2016)

http://www.choppedliver.info/root/two-eyes-above-a-nose-above-a-mouth/ (accessed 09/05/2016)

Bate, D. (2009) Photography: The Key Concepts. London: Bloomsbury.

Clarke, G. (1997) The Photograph: A Visual and Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Marien, M.W. (2014). Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed). London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Sontag, S. (1979) ‘Melancholy Objects’ in On Photography. London: Penguin.


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