August Sander (1876-1964, Germany) first learned about photography by assisting a photographer who worked for a mining company. He spent his military service as a photographer's assistant and soon after decided to wander across Germany.
In the early 1920s, he initiated an ambitious plan to document contemporary society through a series of portraits. His efforts eventually evolved into the body of work known as People of the 20th Century, a project that over time expanded to over 40,000 photographs. Through this impressive archive, Sander was attempting to illustrate a cross-section of German society in the period between the two world wars.
As he himself stated: "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."
Sander's photography was not only meant to chronicle a significant and historical period in time; his longitudinal approach was also staged to represent an idea. That is to say, he had intended to categorise the people he photographed by certain social types. The series is thus divided into seven sections: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People.
Several of his most striking images have meanwhile achieved iconic status on an individual basis, but Sander was keen on the significance of his archive as a whole. According to him, "a successful photo is only a preliminary step toward the intelligent use of photography […] Photography is like a mosaic that becomes synthesis only when it is presented en masse."
Only when viewed in its entirety, as a complete body of work, could there be value in making categorizations. In that sense, Sander should also be considered an incredibly influential conceptual photographer and his approach can to this day be recognised in photographers working in the field of 'documentary portraiture'.
Marginal Trades, for example, an on-going project by Supranav Dash, focuses on the rapidly vanishing trades, professions and businesses in India. These images are informed and inspired by the works of Eugène Atget (Les Petit Metiers), Irving Penn (Small Trades), and the Indian ethnographic images of John F. Watson and John W. Kaye (The People of India, 1868-75), but certainly also by August Sander's People of the 20th Century.
In India, trades and professional practices have always been intertwined with the caste system, with a person's caste often dictating his occupational station. This tradition of trades, passed down from father to son, continued for generations but, as a side-effect of globalisation and rapid socio-economic changes, it is becoming increasingly obsolete.
This turmoil is what triggered Supranav Dash, along with so many other photographers in the last few decades, to create conceptual documentations of people and practices that are on the verge of disappearing, in a style and approach that is very much reminiscent of the pioneering work that August Sander once produced.
Lest we forget.