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Art HERstory: Ellen Auerbach & Grete Stern

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Art HERstory: Ellen Auerbach & Grete Stern


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Photograph of Ellen Auerbach

Photograph of Ellen Auerbach

Photograph of Grete Stern (1929)

Photograph of Grete Stern (1929)

It’s common knowledge that two heads are better than one, but when you have two rebellious chicks and their cameras you’ve got quite a combo. Ellen Auerbach and Grete Stern were the Thelma and Louise of the 1930s art world. They were rebels without a cause. Women with a specific mission: to conquer the male dominated art world.

Ellen Auerbach's "Sulpher Bath, Big Sur" (1949)

Ellen Auerbach's "Sulpher Bath, Big Sur" (1949)

Ellen (Rosenberg) Auerbach was born in Karlsruhe, Germany on May 20, 1906 to American parents. Early on Ellen had no interest in her family business and became independent. Her parents were offended by Ellen’s disinterest and supported her academically, but refused to support her financially or emotionally. She resembled the “lonely loner” Kid Cudi rhymed about except she used photography instead of ganja to free her mind. Thanks to her uncle, Ellen found her niche. He gave her a 9×12 cm camera at the age of 22.

A year later Ellen moved to Berlin to study photography with Walter Peterhans. It was there Ellen met Grete Stern, Peterhans private student.

Ellen Auerbach's "Renate Schottelius" (1953)

Ellen Auerbach's "Renate Schottelius" (1953)

Grete Stern’s life began on May 9, 1904 in Elberfeld, Germany. Educated in England, Stern was exposed to the finer things in life. At the age of 19 she began to study graphic design and in 1926 she worked as a freelance graphic design and advertising artist in Germany. He love for photography ignited after seeing a photography exhibition of Edward Weston and Paul Outerbridge. In 1927, Stern moved to Berlin with her brother. While there she was accepted to study under the famous photographer Walter Peterhans.

“He taught us to see photographically. For him the camera was not just a mechanism to take a photograph. It was a new way of seeing.” –Grete Stern (1992)

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 1, Domestic Appliances" (1950)

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 1, Domestic Appliances" (1950)

Berlin, Germany served as the backdrop for the magical part of our tale. It was a city unlike any other in Europe. In Berlin, women could be one of the boys. Chicks could smoke in public, wear pants, cut their hair as short as they wanted and live unrestrained by society when it came to sexual and social decisions.

Ringl + Pit's "The Corset" (1929)

Ringl + Pit's "The Corset" (1929)

The women eventually ventured out and went into business for themselves. In 1930 Auerbach and Stern used inheritance money to purchase Peterhans’ old photography equipment and open up a studio where they would spend their time photography for fashion, advertising, and portraits. The name of the studio was going to be “Rosenberg and Stern,” but the ladies felt like is sounded too much like a clothing manufacturer. Instead, they decided upon using their childhood nicknames. “Ringl + Pit” became their artistic identity and all their work was signed with both names.

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 16, Mermaid" (1950)

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 16, Mermaid" (1950)

Their photography was intended to change the lens through which people viewed women. Their works contained subtle irony pertaining to the societal expectations of the female. Grete was the mind behind the formal side of the art, and Ellen provided the ironic standpoints.

“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.” –Ellen Auerbach

Ellen Auerbach's "Slums, London" (1935)

Ellen Auerbach's "Slums, London" (1935)

The first sparkle of fame happened in 1931. The ladies’ work was praised in the magazine Gebrauchsgraphik and in 1933 the won a prize for one of their advertising posters. During the time spent in Berlin, Ellen dabbled in filmmaking and ended up with two short black-and-white films: Heiterer Tag auf Rügen and Gretchen hat Ausgang.

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 45, Untitled" (1949)

Grete Stern's "Dream No. 45, Untitled" (1949)

Hitler’s rise in power in 1933 brought on a new set of problems for the ladies. They were forced to leave Germany due to the more aggressive and violent anti-Semitism. Stern and her brother reloacted to London and Auerbach borrowed money from Stern to high-tail it to Palestine. The two friends were forced to part ways, but they never let go of the one thing that brought them together.

Ringl + Pit's "Pit with Veil" (1931)

Ringl + Pit's "Pit with Veil" (1931)

Ellen made another film, Tel Aviv, shortly after her arrival in Palestine. She also opened another studio, Ishon (“apple of my eye”), with friend Walter Auerbach in 1934. The studio was not making enough money to support the pair, so they were forced to relocate. Ellen and Walter married in 1937 and moved to a Philadelphia suburb. After 3 years in Philadelphia, Ellen and Walter moved to the Big Apple where Ellen continued to do what she loved until she died on July 20, 2004 at the age of 98.

“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.” –Ellen Auerbach (1992)

Grete Stern's "Desnudo III" (1946)

Grete Stern's "Desnudo III" (1946)

Grete’s new life in London was productive. She continued to photograph and be featured in magazines. In 1935, Grete married her longtime boyfriend Horacio Coppola and traveled to Horacio’s native country, Argentina. While in Argentina, Grete and Horacio embarked on what would later be known as the first exhibition of modern photography in Argentina. They returned to London to have their daughter Silvia. They then returned to Argentina where they lived for the rest of their lives. The Coppola family traveled the world, made history, and lived happily until Christmas Eve of 1999 when Grete passed away at the age of 95.

“Photography has given me great happiness. I learned a lot and was able to say things I wanted to say and show.” –Grete Stern (1992)

Grete Stern's "El Ojo Eterno" (1950)

Grete Stern's "El Ojo Eterno" (1950)

Ellen and Grete met as vibrant, rebellious young ladies and took the art world by storm. They traveled together, laughed together, and chased their dreams like their lives depended on it. They were Gail and Oprah way before daytime talk shows. Through it all, the two never gave up what they loved. Their passion was in art. It was what kept them going, made them happy, and helped them feel young. That is true dedication to a craft.

“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.” –Ellen Auerbach (1998)

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Female Trouble: The Camera As Mirror and Stage of Female Projection


cindy sherman
Cindy Sherman | Untitled #22, from the series Film Stills, Courtesy of the Artist, Metro Pictures New York and Monika Sprüth Philomene Magers Cologne, Munich, London

Over 150 photographic works are on display through October 26th in a show called Female Trouble: The Camera As Mirror and Stage of Female Projection. The featured works include pieces by Diane Arbus, Monica Bonvicini, Sophie Calle, Julia Margaret Cameron, Comtesse de Castiglione, Nan Goldin, Hannah Höch, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tracey Moffat, ringl + pit, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman, Katharina Sieverding, and many others. The selected pieces question, or challenge the view of women in society – here is how the gallery explains the exhibition:

Since the invention of photography more than 150 years ago it has been largely women who have used this technical medium to project themselves through role playing and masquerading. As well as the experimental urge to constantly create something new, the camera has also served as a means of questioning clichés of female representation. Playing with the image of the eternally feminine was and remains a discourse with gender identity, its social and political definition and what goes beyond that.

The exhibition focuses on contemporary women artists such as Cindy Sherman, Sarah Lucas, Monica Bnvicini and Pipilotti Rist, who with the aid of photography and video art examine the female image, deconstruct and redefine it. At the same time, the exhibition reaches back into the 19th and early 20th century when women such as Countess Castiglione, Lady Hawarden, Claude Cahun and Florence Henri discovered photography as a means of (self-) projection and enquiry.

This sounds like a great exhibition – I wish I were going to be in Munich to see it! I hope that the exhibit will travel to other cities, no word yet, but we’ll keep you posted.

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