Ellen Auerbach (1906-2004) was born in Karlsruhe, Germany, the daughter of Max Rosenberg and Melanie Gutmann. Her father was a successful businessman. Between 1924 and 1927 Rosenberg studied art at the Badische Landeskunstschule in Karlsruhe under Karl Hubbuch, where one of her fellow students was Hanna Nagel. In 1928, Auerbach continued her studies at the Academy of Art (Am Weissenhof) in Stuttgart. An uncle for whom she had done a bust gave her a 9 x12 cm camera and thus she discovered photography. Rosenberg thought that this new medium would be a better way to make a living than creating sculptures.
In 1929, Auerbach moved to Berlin to study photography with Walter Peterhans, who had been recommended by a friend for his excellent photographs and jazz record collection. At his studio Rosenberg met Grete Stern (see my article about her), Peterhans's only other private student. Ellen and Grete began a profound friendship that lasted throughout their lives. For Ellen Rosenberg the move to the capital was the beginning of a final rupture from her bourgeois background and from her family's traditional expectations for her. She had only a short period of lessons with Peterhans, because in 1930 he was named Master of Photography at the Bauhaus School for art and design in Dessau.
Ellen Auerbach, Eckstein with Lipstick, 1930
Using the proceeds from an inheritance Stern bought Peterhans' equipment and with Auerbach established a studio to do advertising, fashion and portrait photography. They called the studio ringl+pit, after their childhood nicknames (ringl for Grete, pit for Ellen). The two young women also lived together in their studio. In the early 1930s, modern advertising was at its beginnings and left ample room for creative exploration. ringl+pit's advertising work represented a departure from current styles by combining objects, mannequins and cut-up figures in a whimsical fashion.
ringl+pit, Untitled, c. 1930
Their work explored a new way of portraying women, also in character with the image of the New Woman that was emerging. Stern's specialty was in graphic design, and she was more interested in the formal aspects of photography. Auerbach provided the more subtle and ironic touches that challenged the traditional representations of women in advertising and films. As Auerbach explained, "We are very different people. She is more serious than I am. I’m a frivolous person. But we had a lot of fun together. She was serious and I frivoled."
ringl+pit, Edwin Denby and Claire Eckstein in Regimentstochter (Gaetano Donizetti), Theater am Schiffbauerdamm, Berlin 1930
Auerbach and Stern also photographed friends and lovers whom they met through bohemian circles. These included the dancer Claire Eckstein and her friend Edwin Denby (above), the writer Marieluise Fleißer and the set designer, Walter Auerbach. When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Walter Auerbach, who was active in leftist political circles, warned the women of the dangers ahead. Aware of the increasing political repression, they decided to leave Germany. Palestine was the only place Ellen could go to, thanks to a loan from Grete that allowed her to enter as a "capitalist". At the end of 1933 Ellen emigrated to Palestine and Grete left for London.
Ellen Auerbach, Port of Alexandria, on the way to Palestine, 1933
Walter Auerbach also went to Palestine, and in 1934 they opened Ishon ("apple of my eye") in Tel Aviv, a studio specializing in children’s photography. At the same time Ellen started photographing everyday life in Palestine. This took her out of the studio and into the streets and villages. She was greatly affected by the difficulties in coexistence between Arab and Jews. In 1936, Grete Stern emigrated to Argentina. Auerbach left Palestine and tried to continue with Stern's London studio, but was unable to obtain a work and residency permit. One year later, Ellen married Walter Auerbach in order to emigrate to the United States, thanks to an affidavit they had received through a distant relative. They lived first in Philadelphia, where Auerbach continued to work as a children’s photographer in order to make a living. In 1938 one of her child photographs was selected for the cover of Life Magazine’s second anniversary issue.
Ellen Auerbach, Statue of Liberty, New York 1939
Ellen Rosenberg's parents stayed behind in Karlsruhe. In 1941, they were interned at the Gurs concentration camp in France, from where they were freed in 1944 by American troops. At the end of the war they returned to Karlsruhe - an unusual move for Jewish survivors. In 1940, Ellen and Walter Auerbach moved to New York where they were introduced to some avant-garde artists, among them Willem de Kooning, whom Auerbach photographed, and Fairfield Porter, a painter who would become a close friend. Ellen and Walter Auerbach were separated in 1945, but remained friends, and she kept his name. Ellen started visiting Great Spruce Head Island in Maine, the Porter family's summer place, where she continued her art photography, focusing on nature subjects and people on the island.
Between 1946 and 1949 Ellen Auerbach worked at the Menninger psychiatric institute in Topeka, Kansas. There she photographed and made two films on young children's behavior. In 1946, she traveled to Argentina to visit her brother and Grete Stern, and to Greece, Germany and Austria. Auerbach continued to travel extensively between the 1940s and 1960s, photographing landscapes and nature, as well as interiors, architecture, street scenes and portraits.
Ellen Auerbach, Sulphur Bath, Big Sur 1949
In 1954 she went to Great Spruce Island to visit nature photographer Eliot Porter, whom she had met through his brother Fairfield. He asked her to accompany him on a trip to Mexico to photograph churches. They went there in 1955–1956. When they returned they tried to interest publishers but it was not until thirty years later that their work received recognition. Mexican Churches was only published in 1987 and Mexican Celebration in 1990. After the Mexico trip, Auerbach no longer wanted to photograph and gradually stopped taking pictures. At the age of sixty, she embarked on a new career: until 1984 she worked as an educational therapist with children with learning disabilities at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York.
From the 1980s, the work of ringl+pit and that of Auerbach and Stern was rediscovered as German museums started to look back. Auerbach's hometown Karlsruhe organized a show in 1988 called Emigriert. The Folkwang Museum in Essen mounted a comprehensive ringl+pit exhibition in 1993 and many others followed. For Ellen Auerbach the culmination was a retrospective of her work at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1998. Ellen Auerbach died in New York on July 30, 2004, at the age of ninety-eight.