Ellen Auerbach (1906 – 2004)
‘Photography appeared to me as a way to independence’.
Born Ellen Rosenberg into a conventional Jewish family in Karlsruhe, central Germany, legendary photographer Ellen Auerbach later said ‘my real life began in Berlin’. She was in her early 20s, and the Weimar Republic was at its height with the ‘New Woman’ emerging; wearing shorter skirts or trousers, sporting bobbed hair, and eagerly embracing the freedom to set up in business or earn a salary was becoming commonplace. The economy was in a shambles but artistic expression was blossoming.
While studying under Walter Peterhans, the official Bauhaus photographer, Ellen met another of his students, Greta Stern. The two became lifelong friends and set up a creative partnership calling themselves ringl+pit, based on their childhood nicknames. Written in lower case and using a + sign instead of the word ‘and’, it was the name they used to co-author their work – all very avant-garde for the time.
The adverts they produced were innovative, witty, and sometimes kitsch, but always carefully composed and lit. Playing with montage, they blended elements of surrealism and the commercial with a fine aesthetic and the satirical recasting of objects as objectified female figures.
A photograph they constructed to advertise Petrole Hahn hair gloss (1931) had a typically whimsical and cutting edge approach. Dressing a mannequin in a traditional nightdress that had belonged to Ellen’s mother, they then used one of their own hands to hold the bottle of hair gloss – a strange, surreal touch.
Their fashion photography was equally playful and unromantic. Their ’Elegant Lady’ (1930) was unusual because the model is photographed from behind – something that simply wasn’t done at the time.
It is said that their adverts didn’t actually seem to sell the products, but their talent was recognised and the two were counted among the most revered women in photography of the era. Their Komol Hair Dye (1931) won 1st prize at Duxième exhibition Internationale de la Photographie et du cinéma in 1933.
Ellen and Greta’s partnership was brought to an end in 1933 when Hitler became Chancellor. By this time Ellen had moved in with a set designer, Walter Auerbach, and they left Germany for Palestine where Ellen began photographing children.
In 1936 the couple moved to London where Ellen briefly worked with Greta again but on quite different projects that included documenting a maternity hospital. In 1937 Walter and Ellen married and emigrated to the US.
After the marriage ended Ellen eventually settled in New York where she freelanced for Time magazine as well as completing portraits of Bertolt Brecht, William de Kooning, and the dancer Renate Schottelius, among others.
She subsequently moved away from photography and into working with children with learning difficulties, saying, ‘you can’t do the same thing forever’. She later became involved in a photography project with Eliot Porter in 1955, in which they documented Mexican churches.
The colour photographs were atmospheric, naturally lit (sometimes candlelit), and gave an insight into the disappearing church sculptures and customs. It wasn’t until 30 years later that their work was published in two volumes: Mexican Churches (1987) and Mexican Celebrations (1989).
By Katy Ferguson