The son of a carpenter, August Sander was born in 1876, in a farming and mining community east of Cologne. His introduction to photography came while working as a young apprentice in the mines, when a visiting photographer asked the boy to serve as his guide. Despite his provincial background, Sander became involved with many of the avant-garde artistic ideas of his day, among them the Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity), a movement led by his friend, the painter Otto Dix, which advocated a return to realism and social commentary in art.
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," which he then expanded to form the first group, the Farmer; six other categories followed: the Skilled Tradesman; the Woman; Classes and Professions; the Artists; the City; and, the last and perhaps most compelling category, the Last People, 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.