People Surveys – B&W portraits as a documentary strategy – Zed Nelson, Irving Penn & August Sander

The next exercise has me looking at August Sander, a photographer that I have heard of, and looking more closely at some work by Zed Nelson (new) and Irving Penn (known) and comparing the bodies of work. Is there any connection?

Zed Nelson – Disappearing Britain

To find out if there is a connection I need to dig into Zed Nelson first…from his website:

Having gained recognition and major awards as a documentary photographer working in some of the most troubled areas of the world, Nelson has increasingly turned his focus on Western society, adopting an increasingly conceptual approach to reflect on contemporary social issues.

Love Me … reflects on the cultural and commercial forces that drive a global obsession with youth and beauty. The project explores how a new form of globalization is taking place, where an increasingly narrow Western beauty ideal is being exported around the world like a crude universal brand. The project spans five years, and involved photography in 18 countries across five continents. Love Me was recently nominated for the 2011 Deutsche Borse Photography Prize, short-listed for the Leica European Publishers Award for Photography, and received First Prize in the 2010 Pictures of the Year International awards.

Previous awards include the Visa d’Or, France; First Prize in World Press Photo Competition; and the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, USA.

Nelson’s work has been exhibited at Tate Britain, the ICA and the National Portrait Gallery, and is in the permanent collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Nelson has had solo shows in London, Stockholm and New York.

The images we had to review were from his body of work called Disappearing Britain, which fits in neatly with the ideals of Meadows, who also wanted to capture the vanishing ‘English.’ Nelson also travelled around the country, photographing people from different walks of life, with a variety of occupations and interests. Also some of the ‘style’ is the same, B&W images, people having full length portraits taken, staring directly into the camera, it was voluntary…as people came off shift etc they were invited to pose in make shift studios where they worked and lived. However, they were isolated from their ‘backgrounds’ but all had props to enable the audience to understand their profession or interest.

Within this work Nelson wanted – through his portraits of specific people – to archive the losses that Great Britain went/is going through, due to privatisation – causing pit closures, reduced fish stocks, hunting bans, cut-backs in shipbuilding and other ‘fading traditions’.

These stories are not just about fading traditions, but also a compass to political, environmental and moral change.

Nelson categorised his subjects by profession/interest and there was no age or gender divide, he also captioned each image with the name of the subject and gave a little background information, making this a more personalised, less anonymous project. Due to this more personal approach the audience tends to feel the loss slightly more than the nostalgia, or that could be because I lived through the miners strike etc etc etc…

Irving Penn – Small Trades

A brief intro for those who have never heard of Irving Penn:

Irving Penn was one of the most respected photographers of the 20th century. In a career that began at the premiere fashion magazine Vogue in 1943 and spans more than six decades, he created innovative fashion, still life, and portrait studies. His photographs are defined by the elegant simplicity and meticulous rigor that became the trademarks of his style.

In between his fashion shoots Penn worked on his own personal project, Small Trades, where he wanted to capture the disappearing artisanal professions, this later developed to also include some of the more modern professions from industrial New York.

Working in Paris, London, and New York in the early 1950s…Irving Penn…created masterful representations of skilled tradespeople dressed in work clothes and carrying the tools of their occupations. A neutral backdrop and natural light provided the stage…Penn revisited his Small Trades series over many decades, producing evermore-exacting prints, including platinum/palladium enlargements.

Penn stated:

I preferred the limited task of dealing only with the person himself, away from the accidents of his daily life, simply in his own clothes and adornments, isolated in my studio. From himself alone I would distill the image I wanted, and in the cold light of day would put it onto the film… Taking people away from their natural circumstances and putting them into the studio in front of a camera did not simply isolate them, it transformed them.

So a quick observation is, there are similarities: studio shots, isolation from background, B&W images, full length, most have a direct gaze at the camera, props or clothing relevant to their trades, the main aim of the project was to capture a disappearing profession/way of life.

August Sander – People of the Twentieth Century

Around 1922, Sander conceived and embarked on a magnum opus to be called People of the Twentieth Century, intended, as he stated, to be “a physiognomic image of an age,” and a catalogue of “all the characteristics of the universally human.” His portrait images were grouped into seven categories, which, in and of themselves, reveal Sander’s views of the German social order. Sander prefaced the project with a “Portfolio of Archetypes” (Stammappe), which he then expanded to form the first group, the Farmer (Der Bauer); six other categories followed: the Skilled Tradesman (Der Handwerker); the Woman (Die Frau); Classes and Professions (Die Stände); the Artists (Die Künstler); the City (Die Großstadt); and, the last and perhaps most compelling category, the Last People (Die Letzten Menschen), comprising the elderly, the deformed, and the dead.

Sander’s inclusion of these and other marginal elements of German society—gypsies and the unemployed also figured in his work—incurred the disapproval of the National Socialist party. In 1936 the Nazis confiscated his first published version of the project, Face of Our Time (Antlitz der Zeit), and destroyed all the printing plates. Some years later Sander left Cologne and moved to the relative safety of the countryside, taking with him some 10,000 negatives. The remaining 25,000 to 30,000 negatives were destroyed by fire before he was able to transport them to the Westerwald. The project remained incomplete at his death in 1964.



Again as a quick observation, the images look similar, B&W, full length portrait, direct gaze to camera, include props and outfits that reveal their occupations. However, there is a subtle difference to the inclusion/exclusion of background scenery once you know of the historical context and the categorisation used – which I found to be quite interesting, the information supplied affecting how you view the portrait, rather than the portrait itself having the impact…

Graham Clarke in The Photograph tells us that Sander’s images ‘reassert and reaffirm [that] we show rather than reveal'(p.114) and that every detail within the image is ‘of significance’, whilst Sontag points out that he inadvertently still used ‘class condescension’ within his style of photography by capturing the rich and professionals ‘indoors, without props’ whilst the ‘labourers and derelicts’ were ‘photographed in a setting’ which spoke ‘for them’.  (Sontag 2008. p.59-61)

Both Penn and Nelson avoided this by using the same studio type backdrop for each portrait.

Read the information supplied by San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that accompanied August Sander’s exhibition and write a 200 word reflective commentary on Sander’s seven-category system reflecting on socio-cultural contexts of the time. Make connections to contemporary practice if appropriate.

These bodies of work prove that documentary photographs and photographers are of their time, as stated by Clarke (1997, p.113) reacting to and being inspired by climates that either enable them or prevent them from working. Meadows, with alterations within the Arts Council, Penn and Nelson reacting to change, Sander inspired by new political freedoms and in ‘sympathy with the ‘New Objectivity’ prevalent at this time, to reflect an ‘optimistic view’ of society, then curtailed by the Nazis. Scarily, his images implied a ‘pseudo-scientific neutrality’

His 7 categories: The Farmer, The Skilled Tradesman, The Woman, Classes and Professions, The Artists, The City and The Last People probably did reflect the regimented German society that Sander’s background allowed. Nowadays, with more equality and political correctness, these categories would have to be redefined. Many of the women Sander photographed were referenced as ‘wife of’, whilst later images gave job titles, showing societal shifts. Whilst equating certain props and situations to different roles the people who participate within them are not fixed; to a certain extent age and disability are no longer a bar to contributing to society.

However, contemporary photographers still use categories when documenting ‘society’ as shown by the work of Zed Nelson and even Chris Steele-Perkins within Open For Business, or by opting to photograph or certain aspects of society such as Martin Parr and Diane Arbus – by comparison Sander was not ‘unkind’ and was ‘unjudging’. (Sontag, 2008. p59-61)


Asander_sfmoma.pdf (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

August Sander: People of the twentieth century. A photographic portrait of Germany (2000) Available at:–a-photographic-portrait-of-germany (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Clarke, G. (1997) The photograph: A visual and cultural history. New York: Oxford University Press.

Irving Penn: Small trades (Getty center exhibitions) (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Morrison, B. (2011) Goodbye to all that | Zed Nelson. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Nelson, Z. (2014) Lampedusa boat tragedy: A survivor’s story. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Nelson, Z. (2016) ‘It represents my liberty’: America and the gun, then and now. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Photographer (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Sammlung, P. and 2016, S.S.K. (2016) Die Photographische Sammlung / SK Stiftung Kultur – August Sander. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Sontag, S. (2008) On photography. London: Penguin Classics.

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