Instead of the Nordic good looks and Nazi physiognomy idealized by the Reich Chamber of Visual Arts, August Sander's camera sought out ordinary, weary, unheroic Germans of the 1920s -- some, in fact, bordering on the grotesque. By virtue of his truthfulness, Sander's photography was applitical.But the authorities in charge of censoring reality didn't see it that way.

Sander's portraits of Gypsies, Jews, intellectuals, Communists, blacks, circus people, the sick, the insane and others standing in the way of the Nazi myth of racial purity were collected in "Face of Our Time," a book that was promptly confiscated by the Third Reich. Within five years of the book's publication in 1929, Nazi officials seized all available copies and ordered the printing blocks destroyed.

But a major retrospective opening at the Corcoran this Saturday includes 150 examples from Sander's lifelong project, "Man of the Twentieth Century," portraying every German social class, job and facial feature. They are painfully true to life.

"August Sander: Photographs of an Epoch, 1904-1959" comprises 250 works, including self-portraits, scenic Rhineland landscape, nature studies and commissioned architectural and advertising work (to which Sander turned after being barred from documenting his countrymen). A beautiful series on the people and landscapes of Sardinia provides the only break from Germany.

The most affecting, often unsetting portraits are collected in a side gallery. Pastry cook, paperhanger, bricklayer and locksmith are grouped together, starting down the lens with pride. Peasants and aristocrats, soldiers and servants, a wrinkled farmer on the way to a funeral, eccentric-looking artists, scruffy revolutionaries, a pair of overdressed dwarfs, a blind boy and girl holding hands -- all reveal the conflicts and upheaval of the German political landscape of the time.

Most are quiet slices of life: the prizewinning choral club in Westerwald, the unemployed touring actor in Cologne, the circus workers in Duren. However, several photos on the theme of festivities have an eerie cabaret quality to them. In the decadent "Artist's Mardi Gras," taken in Cologne, 1929, you can almost hear the sirens in the background.

GALLERY TALKS -- A series of Wednesday lectures and films begins January 12 with Gerd Sander, the artist's grandson and director of the Sander Gallery, offering a personal view at 12:30 in the Frances and Armand Hammer Auditorium.


At the Corcoran, opening this Saturday, continuing through February 6.