Classicizing the Everyday

We know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.1

In the interwar period, the question of the individual versus the collective became an issue that many artists addressed in formal, iconographic, or real political terms. In Germany, August Sander (1876—1964) undertook an ambitious project of creating photographic portraits to reveal specific classes of people and the type of work they did, an endeavor related to his political leanings. "Sander's Cologne studio was a popular gathering place for young artists who engaged in lively debates about social and aesthetic concerns of the day, in particular the politically minded, left-wing artists known as the Cologne Progressives. These discussions helped advance Sander's idea to create a dynamic, cumulative portrayal of modern society."2

Sander began Menschen des 20 Jahrhunderts (People of the Twentieth Century) in 1922 when he was 46 years old. He started by making a list of the various occupations he wished to portray. He decided to take most of the photographs in his native Westerwald region (near Cologne) because he knew it so well. Each day he biked to a different area, where he took photographs of tradesmen, workers, and countless other people. In his image of a coal carrier, "the doorway framing the laborer sets a boundary between the bright light of day and the shadowy depths behind him. The man's bent leg, which seems to propel him forward, lends dynamism to a composition that might otherwise have been static."

Although Sander's plan was to capture some 600 portraits of his countrymen, in 1929 he produced a book featuring many of the photographs he had already taken. Because he had the misfortune to be photographing as the Nazi regime came to power, he was able to capture far fewer images. The Nazis eventually banned his book, raided his studio, and destroyed many pictures because they felt that Sander's honest images of people did not represent the master race they wished to create. To protect his work, Sander hid his negatives in the countryside. After the Nazis were defeated in World War II, the negatives that survived were newly printed.

1 "August Sander," The J. Paul Getty Museum, (accessed December 14, 2010).

2 "August Sander: People of the Twentieth Century," The J. Paul Getty Museum, (accessed December 14, 2010).

3 "Coal Carrier, Berlin," The J. Paul Getty Museum, (accessed December 14, 2010).


  •  Before showing the photograph, tell students that they are about to see a photograph taken in 1929 called Berlin Coal Carrier. Ask them to make a quick sketch and/or write a sentence or two about what they expect to see. Then show Sander’s photograph. Discuss the similarities and differences between the image and their expectations of a work with that title.

    Show: Berlin Coal Carrier, 1929

  • This person’s eyes seem to be looking directly at you. If your students started a conversation with him, what might be the dialogue? What would he say about his livelihood, his place in society, and life in Germany in 1929?This photograph is included in the Classicizing the Everyday section of the exhibition. In what ways does this image express daily existence? How might it be seen as classical?