Ellen Rosenberg was born into a Jewish family in Karlsruhe on 20 May 1906. From 1924 to 1927, she studied sculpture and drawing with professors Paul Speck and Karl Hubbuch at the Badische Landeskunstschule in her home town. In 1928, she transferred to the Academy of Art (Am Weißenhof) in Stuttgart, where she focused increasingly on photography. Auerbach subsequently completed her first photographic studies under the renowned photographer Walter Peterhans in Berlin and met Grete Stern. When Peterhans was called to the Bauhaus Dessau by Hannes Meyer, the two women took over his atelier and, in 1930, opened their own photography studio there named ringl+pit after their childhood nicknames “ringl” (Grete Stern) and “pit” (Ellen Rosenberg). They established their studio with portraits of the poet Marieluise Fleisser, dancers Claire Eckstein (Fig.1) and Edwin Denby and others, as well as still life and commercial photography. Their use of humour, irony and a sometimes provocative stance set their work apart from the conventional photos of the time. In Brussels in 1933, they won the first prize at the Deuxième Exposition Internationale de la Photographie et du Cinema for their advertisement for the hair lotion Komol (Fig.2). In addition to photography, Rosenberg also experimented with 16mm films, creating the shorts Heiterer Tag auf Rügen and Gretchen hat Ausgang.
In late 1933, Ellen Rosenberg emigrated to Palestine (Fig.3) where she worked for the Jewish National Fund. In Tel Aviv in 1934, she also co-founded with Liselotte Grschebina the photo studio Ishon (which in Hebrew can mean “pupil”, “apple of my eye”, or “little man”), specialising in children’s portraits. When the Arab Revolt began in 1936, Rosenberg left Palestine with her partner, set designer Walter Auerbach (Fig.7), to visit Grete Stein in London. She had hoped to be able to settle there and work as a photographer, but this was not to be. Ellen and Walter Auerbach subsequently married in 1937 and emigrated to the USA as man and wife. Ellen’s brother Walter Rosenberg received a visa for Argentina in 1936. As German Jews, Rosenberg’s parents were placed in Gurs internment camp in France in 1943. Later, they were liberated and decided to return to Karlsruhe after the end of the war.
Ellen and Walter Auerbach first lived in Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia, where Ellen continued to work as a photographer. In 1938, one of her children’s portraits was published on the cover of Life magazine. From 1939 to 1942 she documented artworks from the Lessing J. Rosenwald collection, experimented with infrared and ultraviolet light and mastered the carbro printing process.
In 1940 the couple moved to New York and met artists such as Willem de Kooning and Fairfield Porter. Ellen Auerbach worked as a freelance photographer, producing photos of landscapes, nature, dance (Fig.5) and portraits (Fig.4) for magazines including Time and record covers for Columbia Masterworks Records. Ellen and Walter Auerbach separated in 1945.
From 1946 to 1949, Ellen Auerbach worked with the child psychologist Dr. Sybil Escalona at the Menninger School of Psychiatry in Topeka, Kansas. She photographed and produced two films about atypical behaviours and behavioural patterns in infants and babies. In 1953, she was employed as a photography lecturer at the Junior College for Art and Crafts in Trenton, New Jersey. Auerbach also continued to travel extensively, for instance to Majorca, Argentina, Greece, Norway, and to Mexico (Fig.6) with Eliot Porter in 1955/56, amassing in the process an impressive collection of travel and street photographs.
At the age of 60, Ellen Auerbach embarked on a new career. Until 1984, she worked as an educational therapist with children with learning difficulties at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York. She took photographs only occasionally.
The work of ringl+pit and the photographic oeuvre of Ellen Auerbach and Grete Stern were rediscovered in the 1980s. A series of solo and group exhibitions followed in the USA and Germany, including the exhibitions Emigriert (1988, Karlsruhe) and Die Fotografin Ellen Auerbach. Retrospektive (1998, Akademie der Künste, Berlin). Following the retrospective, Auerbach donated most of her photographic work to the Akademie der Künste. She also endowed the Ellen Auerbach Scholarship for Photography, which is awarded every two years by the Akademie der Künste.
Ellen Auerbach died on 30 July 2004 in New York, aged 98.
[AHo, Translation: RW, 2021]
· Ute Eskildsen, Jean-Christophe Ammann, Renate Schubert, Susanne Baumann (1998): Ellen Auerbach: Berlin, Tel Aviv, London, New York, München, Prestel.
· Antonia Lerch (2007): Drei Fotografinnen: Ilse Bing, Grete Stern, Ellen Auerbach, Berlin, Absolut Medien.
· Digitale Sammlungen der Akademie der Künste: Ellen Auerbach. Fotografisches Werk, www.digital.adk.de, 8.11.2021.
· Clara Sandler, Juan Mandelbaum: Ellen Auerbach, https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/auerbach-ellen, 8.11.2021.