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[SS Storm Trooper Chief (SS Hauptsturmführer).
Gelatin silver print
28.6 × 20 cm (11 1/4 × 7 7/8 in.)
J. Paul Getty Museum
© J. Paul Getty Trust, Object Number: 84.XM.126.258
(Curatorial description, 15 December 2021)
In the late 1920s and early 1930s August Sander was at the height of his career. The publication of Face of the Time in 1929 and his radio lectures on the nature and development of photography in 1931 had established him as one of the preeminent German photographers of his day. The National Socialist takeover in 1933 put a dramatic end to his creative ambitions, however. His son Erich (1903-1944) was arrested for Communist activities that year and sentenced to ten years in prison in 1934. Sander himself came under intense Nazi scrutiny for having aided Erich in the reproduction of Leftist leaflets. In 1936 the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts ordered the halftone plates of Face of the Time to be destroyed and all copies of the book to be seized.
Given these circumstances, it is all the more surprising that Sander in 1937 created this picture of an SS officer in Cologne. The image was made at the central train station, with the city's famous neo-Gothic cathedral as a backdrop. As in most of Sander's portraits, there is no detectable criticism, no sense of the photographer indicting the brutal politics this man represented. On the contrary, the cathedral in the background, a poignant symbol of German identity, lends the soldier a nobility and legitimacy that is reminiscent of Sander's best work from the Westerwald.
Like many of his fellow countrymen, Sander may not have realized what horrendous crimes the Nazis were capable of committing. He photographed the SS chief as if the man were just another specimen in his typological catalogue. The extent of Sander's political naïveté revealed in this picture is stunning, matched only by the intensity of his desire to record his country as objectively and truthfully as his medium would permit.