From 1901 to 1902 August Sander attended the Academy of Painting in Dresden.
August Sander started work as an iron miner's apprentice in 1889 at San Fernando Mines and was a coal miner from 1893 to 1896. He began photography in 1892 with a 13 x 18cm camera. He served in the German Army from 1896 to 1898 (and then again from 1914 to 1918). From 1898 to 1899 he worked as a part-time photographic assistant at Jung Studio in Trier, Germany. From 1899 to 1900 Sander was a freelance journeyman photographer in Berlin, Magdeburg, Halle, Leipzig, and Dresden, all in Germany.
He bought his first photography studio, Studio Grief, in Linz, Austria, with Franz Stukenberg, ca. 1901-1902. The studio was renamed Studio Sander & Stukenberg and, finally, August Sander Studio for Pictorial Arts of Photography and Painting when he bought out Stukenberg in 1904. From 1902 to 1904 he was a partner of Studio Sander and Stukenberg, a photography studio, in Linz, Austria. Sander also opened a studio in Cologne in 1910. His other work included a commission to photograph architecture for the Deutscher Werkbund exhibit in 1914.
In the early 1920s, Sander joined the Cologne Progressive Artists Group (Gruppe Progressiver Künstler Köln) where he made the acquaintance of many artists including Franz W. Seiwert, Peter Abelen, and Jankel Adler. Sander’s first book, Antlitz der Zeit: 60 Aufnahmen dt. Menschen d. 20. Jh. ("The Face of Our Time"), was published in 1929, but the Nazis burned all unsold copies in 1934 and destroyed the plates from which they had been printed. Sander’s sociological portrait of the German people, including Jews, gypsies, and others deemed undesirable elements, did not fit well with the Nazis’ myth of racial purity. From 1935 until the end of the Second World War, Sanders only published landscapes and architectural studies.
He began his most famous project entitled Citizens of the Twentieth Century for the purpose of creating a comprehensive portfolio of the German people during the Weimar Republic in the years between World War I and World War II.
Sander's images, chiefly silver prints, were unpretentious, sympathetic portraits of everyday people, from cooks to artists, at their work. In his later photographs, he concentrated on landscapes. Since Sander was influenced by Marxist socialism, many of his books were destroyed by the Nazis, but he saved his negatives, and most of his later years were spent assembling and printing them.
In 1942 he left his home in Cologne and moved to a rural area, allowing him to save most of his negatives. His studio was destroyed in a 1944 bombing raid but thirty thousand of Sander’s roughly forty-thousand negatives survived the war, only to perish in an accidental fire in Cologne in 1946.
Sander's portraiture was the subject of an exhibition in Cologne in 1951. The exhibition was attended by the American photographer and curator Edward Steichen and the meeting of the two men proved to be the beginnings of Sander's rise to international fame. Steichen, who was at that time director of New York's MoMA's Department of Photography, selected some of Sander's work to be displayed at an upcoming exhibition in 1955.
'The Family of Man' exhibition at MoMA - where Sander stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Robert Frank, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Shizuo Yaramoto, and Dorothea Lange - became a momentous cultural occasion intended to symbolize international unity in the fallout of the Second World War.
Konditor (Pastry Chef), Cologne1928
Von den Lumpenbällen (rechts Gunther Sander)1929
Forester's Child, Westerwald (Farm Child on Bicycle)1913
Maler (Anton Raderscheidt)1926
Jungbauern (Young farmers), Westerwald1914
Mädchen im Zirkuswagen (Girl in a Circus Caravan), Köln1926
The Painters Anton Raderscheidt and Marta Hegemony1924
Raoul Hausmann, Berlin1928
Raoul Hausmann as Dancer1929
Wandering Journeyman Bricklayer1927
August Sander was a firm believer in physiognomy as a way to decipher a person's personality and station in society. He was influenced by progressive German artists, especially Franz Wilhelm Seiwart in the 1920s.
"I never made a person look bad. They do that themselves."
"No language on earth speaks as comprehensively as photography, always providing that we follow the chemical and optic and physical path to demonstrable truth, and understand physiognomy."
"In photography there are no shadows that cannot be illuminated."
"Photography has no dark sides!"
August Sander was a member of the German Photographic Society.
In 1902 August Sander married Anna Seitenmacher. They had three children: Eric, Gunther, Sigrid. In 1944 Eric died and his wife in 1957.