National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of Recipient of Welfare Assistance August Sander (artist)
German, 1876 - 1964
Recipient of Welfare Assistance, 1930
gelatin silver print
sight size: 22.3 x 15.4 cm (8 3/4 x 6 1/16 in.)
New Century Fund
1999.49.4
Not on View
From the Tour: Modern Portraits in Photography
Object 5 of 13

A studio photographer, August Sander departed from usual practices when he began to seek out clients among local farmers and villagers in the 1910s and to take unpretentious portraits of them, often out of doors. In the 1920s Sander announced an encyclopedic project that would incorporate those early portraits into a series of portfolios, collectively titled "Citizens of the Twentieth Century." Progressing from the countryside to the city, this cycle was to document the types of people who made up modern Germany.

As in all his pictures for this vast portrait cycle, Sander here withholds the sitter's name. One may ask, then, whether his photograph qualifies as a portrait. This question belongs at the core of Sander's magnum opus, which presents people as unique, irreducible beings but also as specimens of broad demographic groups: here, the steadily increasing proportion of welfare seekers in Depression-era Germany. Sander registers subtle signs of personal character, such as a hesitancy in the man's stance or the almost quizzically raised eyebrows on a face otherwise set stolidly in resignation. Such indications attest to Sander's skill at getting people to "act themselves," an apt phrase to define photographic portraiture in general. By withholding names and showing his subjects primarily against blank or nondescript settings, Sander effectively creates a tension between individual identity and his larger, typological project. What results is, effectively, a portrait of modern society; a world that struggles with the ideal, impossible task of knowing each and every one of its citizens.

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