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Ellen (Rosenberg) Auerbach (May 20, 1906, Karlsruhe, Germany – July 30, 2004, New York City) was a German-born American photographer who is best remembered for her innovative artwork for the ringl+pit studio in Berlin during the Weimar Republic.
Ellen Auerbach (originally Ellen Rosenberg) was born May 20, 1906 in Karlsruhe, Germany. She was born to a liberal Jewish family, and was the daughter of Max Rosenberg and Melanie Gutmann. Her father was a successful businessman while her mother looked after the family.
Auerbach had no interest in the family business, so her parents allowed her to study, but provided little financial or emotional support. Between 1924 and 1927, Auerbach studied art at the Badische Landeskunstschule in Karlsruhe. Her professors were Paul Speck and Karl Hubbuch.
In 1928 she went to the Academy of Art (Am Weissenhof) in Stuttgart to continue her studies. Whilst at the academy she was carving a bust of her uncle, when he gave her a 9 x 12 cm camera in order to get "the angles right". This was her first foray into photography, and she decided it would be a better way to make a living than sculpting.
In 1929 she moved to Berlin to study photography with Walter Peterhans, who was a member of the Bauhaus design movement. Whilst studying under Peterhans, Auerbach met Grete Stern, Peterhans' only other private student. Berlin's liberal environment allowed women to live free social and sexual lives, and it was here Auerbach truly broke away from her family's traditional expectations of her.
In 1930 Peterhans moved to Dessau to become the Master of Photography at the renowned Bauhaus School for art and design. Despite the short time Auerbach studied under Peterhans, the lessons had a lasting impact on her. According to an interview conducted by Susanne Baumann in 1998, Peterhans taught Auerbach to "judge the quality of a picture just by examining the negative. The very first thing I did was to take a portrait of Grete. Peterhans looked at the negative, gave a approving grunt, an then said to me: 'Whatever you end up doing in your life, you should never give up photography'. This was almost a hypnotic command."  She now understood photography was an art from; a novel idea at the time.
In 1930 Auerbach and Stern bought Peterhan's studio and equipment, and founded their own photography and design studio specialising in advertising, fashion and portrait photography. This was one of the world's first female-run photographic businesses. They named the studio after their childhood names, ringl+pit (pit for Ellen.), which also advantageously disguised their genders. They decided to sign all their work together, which was also unique.
The pair were influenced by the creative environment in Berlin at the time. Their work challenged the way women were portrayed and impacted the emerging image of the New Woman. Whilst Grete's speciality was in graphic design and the formal aspects of photography, Auerbach provided the humorous and ironic touches that challenged the traditional representations of women in advertising and film. Auerbach once 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."
At first they received few commissions. They photographed friends and lovers they met through bohemian circles, including the dancer Claire Eckstein and the poet Marieluise Fleisser. In 1931 ringl+pit's work received positive reviews in the magazine Gebrauchsgraphik and in 1933 they won first prize for one of their posters in Brussels. Walter Auerbach started to visit the studio regularly and occasionally lived there with the two women. In 1932 Ellen went to live in Walter's small attic apartment.
Ellen also experimented with film. She made two short black and white films. Heiterer Tag auk Rugen mixed elements of nature with images of friends from a visit to the island of Rugen. Gretchen hat Ausgang was a short silent drama, which featured Grete as a maid, and her future husband Horacio Coppola as a handsome man who tries to seduce her at the local ice-cream parlour.
When Hitler rose to power in 1933, Walter Auerbach, an activist in left wing political circles, warned them of the dangers ahead. As Auerbach later commented, "It did not seem wise to remain in a country that was putting people like us into concentration camps." At the end of 1933 Ellen decided to leave Germany for Palestine, as it was the only place she could go thanks to a loan from Grete allowing her to enter as a "capitalist". Shortly after her arrival Ellen became the official photographer for the Women's International Zionist Organisation (WIZO), and made Tel Aviv, a 16 mm black and white film about the growing city. When Walter joined her in Palestine, they opened a children's photography studio called Ishon ("apple of my eye").
In 1936 the Abyssinian war broke out, and Walter and Ellen left for London to visit Grete. Grete and Ellen collaborated once again in a few commissions, notably one for a maternity hospital, which was to be their final work together. During her time in London Ellen made a short film of Brecht reciting his poetry so future generations to see how they read his poems. The problem was the film was silent.
After Grete emigrated to Argentina in 1936, Ellen tried to continue with the London studio, but was unable obtain a work and residency permit. In 1937 Ellen married Walter Auerbach in order to emigrate the United States. They lived in Philadelphia, where Ellen had some relatives, and continued to work as a children's photographer. In 1938 one of her child photographs was selected for the cover of Life Magazine's second anniversary issue. Here she also experimented with ultraviolet and infrared photography.
Between 1946 and 1949 Ellen Auerbach worked with Dr. Sybil Escalona, a child psychologist, at the Menninger psychiatric institute in Kansas. There she photographed and made two films on young children’s behaviour. In the early 1950s Auerbach taught photography at the Junior College for Arts and Crafts in Trenton, New Jersey.
In 1955 Auerbach joined nature photographer, Eliot Porter, on a trip to Mexico to photograph churches. Photographs were taken with natural light, which was unusual at this time. This work did not receive recognition until thirty years later. This trip was her last professional photography project. She explained her lost interest in photography in 1992, saying, “Maybe one reason is that I don’t think that you have to do the same thing for ever. I had been a photographer for thirty-five years. In that time you start something new. I even today think that I should start something new.”
At the age of sixty Auerbach embarked on a new career, dedicating her life to educational therapy for children with learning disabilities at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York. Tate Schmidt, the institute’s director, gave her training and opportunities. She had a very high success rate despite the lack of formal training, and crafted a space where children could explore themselves.
In her later life photography was no longer a professional endeavour, but rather a search for deeper meaning in life. She strove to show the essence of things, and called her way of finding this essence the “Third Eye,”. Auerbach continued to travel extensively between the 1940s and 1960s, photographing landscapes and nature, as well as interiors, architecture, street scenes and portraits. In 1992 she explained, “It’s a zen question. I think that to make a photograph, the way I liked to, you have to be so completely absorbed in what you are photographing that you forget yourself, and become what you photograph. And not stand there and say: ‘now I’m making a photograph’.”
“If you photograph something that you are forced to photograph, it cannot go over. You have to feel great enthusiasm or pity or whatever it is for what you are doing—and then it seems to transmit this in all kinds of shapes. Sometime I don’t even understand why I photograph something. And when it has that effect on people, I think, at least inside of me, I must have felt the same way.”
From the 1980s the work of ringl+pit and Ellen Auerbach was “rediscovered” by German museums looking to find role models from the past to inspire a new generation. The rediscovery of her work was partly triggered by the publication of two photography books - Mexican Churches (1987) and Mexican Celebrations (1990) which were originally taken in 1955 with fellow photographer Eliot Porter.
Ellen’s hometown organized a show in 1988 called Emigriert, and the Folkwang Museum in Essen mounted a comprehensive ringl+pit exhibition in 1993. For Ellen the culmination was a retrospective of her work at the Akademie der Künste in Berlin in 1998. Ellen Auerbach commented, “These pictures are an expression of that time, although we did not consciously think about women and this and that, but it was in the air. It is always like that, that something does not happen in one single case. What we did then is now admired as the ‘forerunners’ of something. First of all, when you’re running you don’t know that you’re running ‘fore,’ but the modernity of those pictures was because the time was a breakthrough time.”
In 1996, a documentary about her partnership with Grete Stern, Ringl + pit, won a number of awards.
Very few of ringl+pit's photographs survive today, but their work is now sought after by museums and collectors.
She had one older brother who died when he was a child and a younger brother called Walter who was born 12 years after Auerbach.
In 1936 Walter Rosenberg secured a visa for Argentina and sailed there to live with Grete Stern, who was then married to Horacio Coppola.
During the war the Rosenberg's parents stayed behind in Karlsruhe. In 1941 they were taken by the Germans to the Gurs concentration camp in France. They were freed in 1943 by American troops. They returned to Karlsruhe at the end of the war, which was very unusual for Jewish survivors.
Ellen's marriage to Walter Auerbach ended in 1945 although they remained friends. She had no children.
- Clara Sandler and Juan Mandelbaum, an entry about Ellen Auerbach, Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia