Knowing what was coming, I stepped out eagerly to meet the UPS truck. Walking toward me with a medium-sized box, the UPS delivery lady complained good-naturedly that it felt like there was an engine inside. “No,” I said. “It’s a seven-volume collection of the photos of one of the greatest photographers of the twentieth century.” She gave me that “What planet are you from?” look but I thanked her sincerely anyway. (I mean, seriously, what would I do with an engine of any sort?)
The item in question was August Sander’s People of the Twentieth Century in, as I said, seven volumes. Available in hardback from Amazon.com for the absurd price (today) of just over $120.
This isn’t just an anthology of nice photos, although it is that, too. But what this really is, is one of the magna opera of photographic history—a monumental collection of portraits of people of all classes, organized systematically. The first volume, for example, is devoted to farmers. Volume 3 is devoted to women.
Sander is one of the greatest of all portrait artists and these seven volumes are to portrait photography what the 48 preludes and fugues of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier are to keyboard technique, an inexhaustible source of inspiration and an impossible and enduring challenge.
I’ll be writing more about Sander in the near future. In the meantime, if you aren’t already well familiar with this master, check out this brief comment from the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the accompanying handful of photos; or this brief bio (also with photos) from the Getty Museum. If you want to wallow in the photos (not a bad way to start), click here. And if you would like to read a very thoughtful and, I think, balanced critical appreciation of Sander’s work, check out this essay by Leo Rubinfein from Art in America, available online here.
I should mention finally that, as is so often the case, I owe a debt to Mike Johnston at The Online Photographer Blog. It was a post by Mike earlier this year that made me aware of these volumes. Thanks, Mike.