Two diminutive figures eye the camera with deep mistrust. Dandyish though they may seem, their dark suits, starched collars and watch-chains offer no protection against a world which prides itself on excluding people like them. As they stand waiting for the moment of confrontation, they cut themselves off from the photographer and seem to be whispering to each other like frightened children. As the shutter clicks, their alienation is complete. Dwarves (1927) from Portfolio 45 Idiots, the Sick, the Insane and the Dying form part of 'The Visage of Time', August Sander's encyclopedic visual analysis of the people of Weimar Germany, categorised according to profession, status or type. But the apparent rigour of the classifications may have been no more than an alibi. in fact, Sander's passion was for ordinary people and what made them special: the young man with duelling scars across his face; film stars playing themselves though uncertain whether they are or not, for where does acting ever begin or end; schoolboys trying to smoke as they have seen grown-ups do, and failing... In other words, Sander departed from his stated intention. Instead of defining them by means of his own system of classification, he recorded how people chose to define themselves. Not surprisingly, 'People of the Twentieth Century', the project on which he embarked in the early 20s, was not only less exact than it seemed, but even as an exercise in amateur taxonomy was a failure. Whether Sander realised this is difficult to ascertain. Perhaps life took over. He cannot always have been happy. Indeed, when his son Erich died in prison of 'an unexplained illness' and Sander's archive was confiscated by the Nazis, it must have seemed that all was lost. His last years were spent sorting out what was left of his work after the bombing of his home town, Cologne; an event which he set out to record in his own, apparently clear-headed way. 'In photography there are no unexplained shadows', he claimed. On the contrary, we might ask why so much in his work remains unexplained, not least the motives of the photographer himself. Could his lifetime's project have been the invention of a man so shy that he felt it almost impossible to mix with other people, however wretched their predicament (like Walker Evans)? Or could it have been that of someone with a grudge, who feigned gregariousness in order to make photographs (like Diane Arbus)?
As with Arbus, who seems to have known his work, Sander used the camera as a way of meeting people with whom it might otherwise have been impossible for him to engage, like the avant-garde the wife of an artist, rampant like a caged animal, or the robust, shirtless Raoul Hausmann, embracing his wife with one arm and his mistress with the other. Also like Arbus, Sander considered the morality of photographic practice and whether rules could be bent. (Arbus' use of Downs syndrome children in her last photographs is a case in point, a far more serious issue than any thrown up by recent moral wrangles over child nudity.) Sander ended his book with Blind Miner and Blind Soldier: two men, both sightless, on a bench a tableau resembling a scene from a Beckett play. It is an unflinching and a deeply unfair double portrait, which Sander probably justified as evidence. But evidence of what? The more we consider the project, the more ludicrous it becomes. Consider the boys from the country, with jaunty hats and walking sticks, looking their best for the local dance, an image analysed by John Berger in one of the best essays ever written on photography; the frighteningly chubby babies like something by Runge; the Junior Teacher (1931), who looks as if he has been poured into his boots; and the sober, portly Pastry-Chef (1928). What did Sander say to these people? How did he justify his interest in them? This may have been where the camera came in. It could be argued that for Sander the very act of posing became the subject of his work and with it a head-on meeting, however honest it may have been. More and more, then, it seems that his theme was neither people, nor Germany, nor photography itself, but truth in all its guises.