You Need the Past to Inform the Present and the Future. Sander, Chambi, Penn, and Onward…

There are particular narratives that have been repeatedly explored throughout the history of photography, but perhaps the most returned to is that of the trade portrait, and the most obvious, influential and perhaps definitive of these is the body of work created by August Sander. The culmination of this work was work published in Sander’s first book Face of our Time (Antlitz der Zeit) in 1929, but the portraits themselves began 1911, with the first series of portraits for his work People of the 20th Century. Face of our Time contains a selection of 60 portraits from that People of the 20th Century series.

It would take too long and too many words to list and explain how many photographers have been influenced, inspired and informed by Sander’s approach to portraiture since its publication. But it is interesting to me how the narrative of ‘trades’ has been so often repeated as a narrative device within the portrait form.

Boxers by August Sander © Die Photographische Sammlung:SK Stiftung Kultur - August Sander Archiv, Cologne
Boxers by August Sander © Die Photographische Sammlung:SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander Archiv, Cologne

Sander’s non-evasive, non-judgemental documentation of his subjects draws the viewer’s eye to details of clothing, implements, facial and physical specifics. Sander’s purpose was to set document ‘The Farmer’, ‘The Skilled Tradesman’, ‘The Woman’, ‘Classes and Professions’, ‘The Artists’, ‘The City’ and ‘The Last People’, and in doing so reveal Germany’s ethnic and class diversity. The work was simple in construction, deeply revealing in reality and highly politically charged in a time when Fascism was on the rise in Germany and across Europe. As the Nazi regime came to power Sander’s work and personal life became constrained, and in 1936 Face of our Time was seized and the photographic plates destroyed. In 1944 his studio was destroyed in a bombing raid, but despite this 30,000 of his approximately 40,000 negatives survived the war, only to be destroyed in an accidental fire in Cologne in 1946.

Susan Sontag wrote in her 1977 essay collection On Photography: “It was not so much that Sander chose individuals for their representative characters, as that he assumed, correctly, that the camera cannot help but reveal faces as social masks.”

Whenever I speak about portrait photography in the 20th Century I start with Sander.  Not for his aesthetic intention but for his setting of a narrative agenda that gives the portraits their narrative form. It is an agenda that draws disparate people together under what are in effect chapter headings and it is these headings that provide the spine for the visual narrative.

The idea of focusing on a specific trade, nationality, ethnographic group, interest or profession is an established approach within portrait photography with many photographers adopting a less exhaustive ambition than Sander in their creation of similar trade based narratives. There can also be a dominant aesthetic of repetition that supports the narrative. Over the years since Sander’s body of work the ambition of his survey has been reduced and re-focused on narrow ares of profession or trade.

Chefs, New York, 1952. The Irving Penn Foundation

This is most clearly seen and defined by the studio based trade portraits by Irving Penn. Penn created the body of work titled Small Trades between 1950-51 in London, Paris and New York. The approach, is similar throughout the images – whether the sitter is a butcher, fishmonger or chimney sweep, they are photographed full length, and invariably standing, dressed in work clothes, with markers of their occupation. John Szarkowski, former director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, commented that Penn’s portraits claimed people were interesting enough they did not need to be photographed with the support of a glamorous backdrop. Small Trades became vastly significant in the advancement of Penn’s career, and evolved into his most extensive body of work with over two hundred images within the series.

It is an influential body of work that is often referenced by student and professional photographers alike, it informs many projects in both aesthetic and subject choice, but it is not unique or original in its approach. 

Indian woman and child from Keromarca, Kanchis- Cuzco Studio, 1934. © Estate of Martin Chambi
Indian woman and child from Keromarca, Kanchis- Cuzco Studio, 1934. © Estate of Martin Chambi

The portraits created by Martín Chambi Jiménez, a photographer, originally from southern Peru are an obvious if lesser known starting point to the work later created by Penn. Chambi was one of the first major indigenous Latin American photographers and a prolific portrait photographer in the towns and countryside of the Peruvian Andes from 1923. Within his studio, he created portraits of both wealthy and elite members of society, as well as the Peruvian indigenous people. In a magazine interview in 1936, he is quoted as saying “in my archive I have more than two hundred photographs of diverse aspects of the Quechua culture.”

In the studio his work pre-dates that of Penn and shares many similarities, on location it echoes the work being created in Europe by Sander. In reality it provides a link between all three bodies of work and illustrates the importance of a shared vision and intent amongst photographers when it comes to finding narratives and deciding upon an appropriate format with which to tell those stories.

I am reminded of a question the fashion and portrait photographer Terence Donovan used to put to me, “What are they bringing to the party?” In a sense we are all at the party, and we are all invited to bring something, but it is our decision as to whether we choose to bring an old-favourite just like we always do, a re-working of something we enjoy or try to make something completely new that has never been done before. Within the medium of photography the first choice seems redundant, the third unlikely and the second an appropriate option to both progress our own work and the future of the medium.

Lead Image: Irving Penn, Self-Portrait, Cuzco Studio, 1948.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Focal Press 2014) and The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Focal Press 2015). His next book New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography will be published by Bloomsbury Academic in 2019.

His documentary film, Do Not Bend: The Photographic Life of Bill Jay can now be seen at

© Grant Scott 2019




1 comment

  1. Everything we know is the past. It’s feeds our future, a future as soon as it’s realised becomes the inspiration known as the past.

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